Michel Barnier voices reservations about British backstop plan
Britain's latest Brexit backstop proposals received a frosty reception in Brussels, with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier raising objections to her plan for a time-limited customs arrangements covering the whole UK.
Mr Barnier said he would not be intimidated by Britain seeking to blame Brussels for their inability to secure the Brexit they want.
He said it would not be feasible to extend the European Commission's backstop plan – under which Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU's customs territory after Brexit – to include the whole of the UK.
Mr Barnier said Theresa May's plans for a temporary backstop were not in line with the needs of Brussels, Dublin or Northern Ireland for stability, turning one of her own slogans against her to declare: "Backstop means backstop."
He questioned whether a temporary backstop could "secure the absence of a hard border in all circumstances" and said it might mean businesses and public authorities having to cope with several changes.
The May proposals also failed to address the need for full regulatory alignment on either side of the border, he added.
But within minutes of concluding a press conference in Brussels, the chief EU negotiator took to Twitter to correct the impression that he was rejecting the UK proposals out of hand, stressing that they would be the subject of discussions in the coming days and weeks.
Downing Street issued a statement restating Mrs May's firm opposition to the proposals put forward by the commission, which she said would create a customs border down the Irish Sea. Number 10 pointedly noted that both the UK and EU were committed to preserving the Good Friday Agreement.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the British government's plan represented a "small step forward".
He said it would be examined with the other EU member states and the taskforce on Brexit.
Speaking in Belfast, Mr Varadkar said there are three questions to ask of the paper - "does it achieve what we want it to achieve - that there is no hard border? Is it all-weather, does it work in all circumstances? And thirdly, does it respect the integrity of the single market and the customs union?"
"The only deadline that should be in the backstop is the all-weather or if and when deadline – so the backstop should apply until such a time as there is an alternative arrangement, a new EU-UK relationship which avoids a hard border," he said.
The DUP accused Mr Barnier of lacking respect for the constitutional integrity of the UK, accusing him of "an outrageous attempt to revert to the annexation of Northern Ireland".
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "This is nothing more than an outrageous attempt to revert to the annexation of Northern Ireland – we will not accept such a proposal."
He said the focus should be on getting a new trade deal.
Mrs May's customs backstop proposal envisages the whole of the UK remaining part of key elements of the customs union until a better arrangement is in place.
Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson said the British government had no understanding of the impact Brexit will have on the border or any willingness to to address it.
"It also shows a total lack of willingness on the part of the Tories to put forward any credible proposals to avoid any hardening of the border," she said.