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Northern Ireland constitutional position none of our business: Barnier sets record straight on backstop

Pivotal week in the Commons as prospect of no-deal looms

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is "none of the EU's business," Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said as he bids to set the record straight on the backstop - the main sticking point in the UK's exit from the bloc.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph he said there were many "misrepresentations" over the backstop - the insurance policy agreed between the EU and UK under Theresa May to prevent a hardening of the border in Ireland. He said its aim was to manage the "unique" risks the UK's departure created for Northern Ireland.

Mr Barnier also said it would be a surprise to him if many people in the UK thought blame lay with the EU if the UK crashed out without a deal. He repeated that should the UK crash out without a deal, the same obstacles would remain and the EU would be forced to protect its interests.

He wrote: "It is not about changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. That is none of the EU’s business, as it is the Good Friday Agreement – an agreement between the British and Irish governments and political parties in Northern Ireland – that settles how Northern Ireland should be governed."

The backstop provides Northern Ireland with the economic benefits of the single market for goods.

He said the backstop "fully respects the carefully negotiated balance found in that agreement between the competing political views and different identities in Northern Ireland".

"Its objective is simply to have an insurance policy in place that guarantees that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains fully open, and that the status quo of cross-border exchanges on the island of Ireland is maintained.

"At the UK’s request, we agreed to have a UK-wide customs dimension to that backstop."

Mr Barnier said intense discussions among the 27 EU member states were had on maintaining the integrity of the single market while allowing for an open border on the island or Ireland. He said the backstop offered the "maximum flexibility" to a non EU member.

"The backstop provides Northern Ireland with the economic benefits of the single market for goods, which the EU is exceptionally willing to offer due to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland recognise and appreciate this offer more than Westminster does for now."

Alliance welcomed the comments. Deputy leader Stephen Farry said those thinking the EU would change their position at the 11th hour were "deluding themselves".

He said: "Dangerous decisions are taken by those who believe their own propaganda. The room for negotiation lies around the Political Declaration or reverting from the UK-wide backstop to a Northern Ireland-only mechanism.

“The backstop is much more than just avoiding a return of a hard border – a point seemingly lost on those seeking to devise alternative arrangements.

“As the grandstanding and dishonesty of the current Johnson administration deepens, the case for the backstop is reinforced. It would be much more difficult to take any assurances from this UK Government on trust.”

Mr Barnier said that the EU was committed and ready to explore all alternatives in working with the UK during the transition period should the UK leave with a deal.

Those alternatives, he said, would have to provided the same objectives of the backstop - namely maintaining an open border and protecting the integrity of the EU's single market.

He conceded though he was not optimistic over avoiding a no-deal Brexit.

"Uncertainty has festered for far too long in the UK, in particular in Northern Ireland, as well as in Ireland and all other EU countries, for that matter."

Mr Barnier said if there was a no-deal Brexit the EU's only option was to protect its interests and there would be no "mini deals" which have been raised by Brexiteers including the DUP. He said the outstanding matters of the Irish border, citizens rights and the financial settlement would still need to be addressed.

"The EU cannot prevent the UK from choosing a 'no-deal’ scenario. I would fail to understand the logic of that choice though, as we would still need to solve the same problems  after October 31.

"Many people in the UK understand that and I would be surprised if they succumb to the idea that the EU is to blame for a difficult political situation in the UK."

Boris Johnson meanwhile has spoken of “signs of progress” in Brexit discussions.

The prime minister restated his case for a harder Brexit, telling The Sunday Times the country needed to “come out of the incarceration of the backstop”.

He added: “Everybody understands what is wrong with the current withdrawal agreement: it keeps the UK locked into the EU. It means they can boss us around on trade policy or on how we legislate forever.”

The interventions from both sides come ahead of another pivotal week in the Commons and an expected clash on the green benches when opponents of no deal look set to try to seize control of the parliamentary agenda to push through legislation delaying Brexit beyond October 31.

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