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EU struggles to break Brexit stalemate but Johnson upbeat after talks

Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier

By Sam Blewett

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said it is difficult to see how the impasse over the Northern Ireland backstop can be overcome.

He said the EU “remains open to talks and progress”, but that the UK had yet to come forward with proposals which could offer the basis of a solution.

“Based on current UK thinking, it is difficult to see how we can arrive at a legally operative solution which fulfils all the objectives of the backstop,” he said, after talks in Berlin with German foreign minister Heiko Maas.

His downbeat assessment came as Boris Johnson was preparing to meet key EU figures on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The Prime Minister has said he wants Britain to leave the EU with a deal on October 31 — the current EU deadline — but is adamant that the backstop must be scrapped.

Speaking to reporters on the flight to the US, Mr Johnson insisted “a great deal of progress” had been made in the talks, although he sought to play down suggestions a breakthrough was imminent.

“There might be, but I don’t wish to elevate excessively the belief that there will be a New York breakthrough.

“We will be pushing ahead but there is still work to be done.”

He said it was “very encouraging” that European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had said he was not wedded to the mechanisms of the backstop — intended to ensure there is no return of a hard border with the Republic.

He said there was “interest” in his proposals for the island of Ireland to be treated as a single zone for agri-food purposes, but acknowledged there were “still gaps and still difficulties” which needed to be resolved.

“It would be still fair to say I’m in the same position I was. I think cautiously optimistic would be about right,” he said.

The Prime Minister was due to meet European Council president Donald Tusk yesterday, before talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

He is due to meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar today. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has warned that a “wide gap” remains between the UK and the EU on a new Brexit deal.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar has said if there is a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit it will be the fault of the UK, not the EU. Speaking at the UN Summit, he responded to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s comments that border checks will be an inevitable consequence of a no-deal Brexit.

“It is the case that in the event of no deal, checks will be necessary and we’ve been saying that for months now,” Mr Varadkar said. “Checks in ports, airports, at business level, near the border, and if that happens, it will happen as a consequence of the UK leaving without a deal, it won’t be a decision we made and certainly won’t be something we sign up to or agree to in any way.”

When asked how he will prepare Irish business, including farmers and agricultural enterprises, who are set to be hit the hardest by a no-deal Brexit, Mr Varadkar said once arrangements have been decided, he will inform the country.

“I think businesses and farmers know a lot already, they know what’s going to happen with customs, declarations and tariffs rates that come along with a no-deal.

“In relation to any arrangements near the border, I understand businesses and farmers will want to know, but that’s not agreed yet. Once we know we’ll inform people, we’ll give them time to prepare.”

He added that there “are also some people that believe at the last minute that Ireland will somehow fold or give up our position (on the backstop) and that’s not going to happen.

“The position that we’ve had all along is that we’re willing to examine alternative arrangements that achieve the same objectives as the backstop, that we agreed to,” he said.

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