Brexit

Barnier questions Chequers proposals as Theresa May tells Belfast audience there's 'no technology solution' for border

Theresa May told a Belfast audience that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was "almost inconceivable". Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

THE EU's chief Brexit negotiator has offered his first public response to Downing Street's white paper by questioning whether Theresa May's proposals for customs arrangements are workable.

Michel Barnier was speaking shortly after the Tory leader issued a challenge to Brussels to "evolve" its negotiating position in response to the publication of her Brexit blueprint.

Delivering a speech in Belfast on the second and final day of a visit to Northern Ireland, Mrs May also took aim at critics from the hard Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, accusing them of being ready to "betray" the people of Ireland – north and south.

Mr Barnier said the Downing Street white paper published last week had opened the way for "constructive discussions" on the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

After briefing ministers from the 27 remaining member states in Brussels, he indicated the EU was ready to amend its "backstop" proposals for the Irish border, which have become the biggest stumbling block in talks.

But he said there were elements of the plan agreed by the cabinet earlier this month at Chequers which the European Commission did not understand, and further discussions would be needed over the coming weeks to establish how much "common ground" exists between London and Brussels.

Mrs May's proposal for a "facilitated customs arrangement" opened up the risk of major fraud, additional bureaucracy and damage to EU businesses, he said.

Mr Barier said the EU had always been "creative and flexible" in its approach to negotiations.

But he insisted that future talks would be based on the guidelines issued by the European Council in March - which included the controversial proposal to keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union - and not on Mrs May's document.

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In her first major Brexit speech since the wave of ministerial resignations which followed her Chequers deal, the prime minister described the white paper proposals as "a significant development of our position... a coherent package".

"It is now for the EU to respond - not simply to fall back on to previous positions which have already been proven unworkable, but to evolve their position in kind," she said.

Mrs May also took on the argument of prominent Eurosceptics including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who say the UK should simply declare it will impose no checks on its side of the Irish border and leave it to Brussels to decide whether to require the Republic to erect barriers on the other.

"The protection of the peace process and upholding our binding commitments in the Belfast Agreement are grave responsibilities," she said.

"Not to seek a solution would be to resume our career as an independent sovereign trading nation by betraying commitments to a part of our nation and to our nearest neighbour."

In a swipe at former foreign secretary Boris Johnson's claim – repeated in his resignation speech on Wednesday – that technological solutions could be used to avoid the need for infrastructure at the border, the Tory leader also said "no technology solution to address these issues has been designed yet or implemented anywhere in the world".

"Let alone in such a unique and highly sensitive context as the Northern Ireland border," she added.

Mrs May restated her implacable opposition to the EU backstop, which she said would involve the creation of a customs border within the UK, which was "something I will never accept and I believe no British prime minister could ever accept".

Equally, she said that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was "almost inconceivable".

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