Brussels will not be intimidated by a Brexit blame game, says Barnier
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator said Theresa May’s proposals for a customs backstop in Northern Ireland raise ‘difficult’ questions.
Brussels will not be “intimidated” by Britons who try to blame the EU for their inability to secure the Brexit deal they want, chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said.
Mr Barnier was speaking as he said that Theresa May’s proposals for a backstop customs arrangement in Northern Ireland raise a series of “difficult” questions.
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Barnier said it was not necessarily “feasible” to extend the EU’s offer of continued participation in key elements of the customs union in Northern Ireland to cover the whole of the UK, as the Prime Minister’s proposal suggests.
And he said Mrs May’s insistence that the arrangement must be time-limited meant that it could not be regarded as a true backstop, providing a fallback option if the UK’s preferred permanent solution could not be agreed.
“Backstop means backstop,” he said. “The temporary backstop is not in line with what we want or what Ireland and Northern Ireland want and need.”
Mr Barnier said it appeared that some Brexit supporters wanted to offload on to Brussels the blame for the fact that the UK cannot continue to enjoy some of the benefits of EU membership after leaving.
But he said: “We are not going to be intimidated by this form of blame game.”
Mr Barnier said that “much remains to be done” on the withdrawal issues of data protection, geographical indications for food and drink and the resolution of proceedings relating to the UK which are ongoing at the end of the transition period,
In a pointed reference to the absence of Mr Davis and his negotiators from Brussels for much of the first half of 2018, he said his team were “happy and ready to step up the frequency of our discussions”.
Under the proposals thrashed out by Mrs May in tense meetings with Brexit-backing ministers David Davis and Boris Johnson on Thursday, the whole of the UK would remain part of key elements of the customs union until a better arrangement is in place – something which the Government expects can be achieved by the end of 2021.
Mrs May believes this would keep the Irish border open, while avoiding creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, as the EU’s backstop proposal would.
But Mr Barnier said: “Our backstop can’t be extended to the whole UK. Why? Because it has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland.”
Under the EU proposal “Northern Ireland would form part of our customs territory”, he said, adding: “What is feasible with a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK.”
And he questioned whether Mrs May’s proposals would deliver an “all-weather backstop” fit for all circumstances.
“The UK calls this arrangement ‘temporary’,” said Mr Barnier.
“How does that fit with the need to secure the absence of a hard border in all circumstances?
“Moreover, we had agreed with the UK on the principle that public authorities and businesses would need to adapt only once to the new situation created by Brexit.
“Does the temporary nature of the customs arrangement mean that several adaptations will now be needed?”
He added: “The UK recognises that the proposals in its paper can’t qualify as a backstop, since the issue of full regulatory alignment is not addressed. We need regulatory alignment to avoid a hard border.”
Keeping the whole of the UK inside the EU customs territory after the end of the Brexit transition in December 2020 might mean the EU having to reopen, renegotiate and re-ratify its free trade agreements with a range of other countries, he suggested.
And he added: “The UK tells us it wants to avoid any control. How does that fit with the requirements of our VAT system?”
Mr Barnier said that the UK itself recognised that its proposals raised “relevant and difficult” questions, which would require further discussion.
And he warned that “time is moving on”, with less than three weeks to go to the June 28 EU leaders’ summit at which Brussels and Dublin are pushing for resolution of the border issue.
“The time has come today to take decisions and make choices,” said Mr Barnier.
He said it was “paradoxical” that in the papers he receives about Brexit from the UK there is a “request for the status quo” on issues when the country took the decision to leave the EU.
He said the UK “needs to accept the consequences” of quitting the bloc.
“There needs to be more trust but there also needs to be more realism about what’s possible and what is not possible,” he added.
Mr Barnier said he continues to have “great respect” for the Prime Minister.
But he said: “Theresa May and her team have agreed to the backstop in the March agreement and there is no question of backtracking on that.”
The negotiator said he would not comment on remarks made at a private dinner by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson about Brexit.
“I always listen very attentively to what he says, but then it is always very stimulating,” he added.
Mr Barnier said he sometimes detected “nostalgia” in the comments being made about Brexit “because they want to remain in just about everything without having to respect the regulatory framework”.
He said the EU respected the red lines set out by Mr Johnson and the Government.
“It would be perhaps good if Britain could also respect its own red lines,” he added.
“Just to be quite clear about this – if these red lines were to evolve on the British side we would be open straight away, we would be prepared to adjust our position, to reopen, adjust our offer in the light of whatever red lines Britain has.”