The EU's chief Brexit negotiator has urged Theresa May to reconsider her rejection of their plan to solve the Irish border, which she has previously said “no UK prime minister” could agree to.
In a speech in Brussels while the UK cabinet tried to hammer out its own policy at a Chequers away day, Michel Barnier warned the UK that “we do not have much time” to find a solution.
He urged both sides to “de-dramatise” the EU’s backstop plan and argued that it did not really entail a new border within the UK as sometimes claimed, but simply “technical checks” on goods crossing the sea.
“We are not asking for any new borders between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The whole or part of the backstop can be replaced by the agreement on the future relationship,” he said.
“We must all de-dramatise this backstop. We will obviously need to clarify how and where these controls will be done but ultimately these are only technical controls on goods – no more, no less.”
The timing of the speech appears to make it a direct appeal to the PM’s cabinet, who are likely to be following the negotiator’s words closely while they try and hash out a coherent policy at Ms May’s country retreat.
The EU has effectively suggested Northern Ireland stay in the customs union and continue to follow single market regulations. This would prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland but would introduce customs and regulatory checks for goods on ferries between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – though no passport checks for people.
This “backstop” would apply “unless and until” another solution was found to prevent a hard border: either a specific solution for Northern Ireland or an overarching trade deal between the UK and the EU that removed the need for checks.
The UK has rejected the EU plan and says it wants to remove the need for a hard border with a trade deal or backstop that applies to the whole UK. Part of the opposition comes from the DUP, a Northern Irish unionist party on which Theresa May currently relies for a majority in the House of Commons.
The EU has said there can be no Brexit deal without solving the Irish border question, and a no deal is expected to be an economic disaster for the UK.
Speaking at the Institute of International and European Affairs think tank in Brussels Mr Barnier reeled off the benefits of single market membership, such as EU standards being emulated around the world, more leverage for trade deals, and seamless trade within the bloc.
“In the Brexit negotiations there are still too many questions and too few answers,” he said, later adding: “We still have a long way to go and we do not have much time. The European Council in October is approaching rapidly. On the issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland we obviously need more clarity and most importantly certainty in the long run.”