Michel Barnier says the document raises more questions than it answers
The EU has rejected significant parts of the British Government’s proposed ‘backstop’ solution for avoiding a return to a hard border in Ireland.
At a press conference this afternoon, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the publication of the document – but warned it raises more questions than it answers.
The proposals would see a “temporary customs arrangement” put in place for the period after Britain leaves the bloc and before a new trade arrangement is put in place.
The arrangement would see the UK matching EU trade tariffs and observing relevant Customs Union rules until a new deal is in place.
However, the plan would only remain in place until 2021 – regardless of the status of negotiations on a future trading relationship between the two blocs.
The document also provides no answers in terms of aligning regulations.
Mr Barnier told reporters this afternoon that putting a time limit on the backstop would not be acceptable to the EU.
Referencing the British Prime Minister’s regular refrain that “Brexit means Brexit” Mr Barnier repeated a number of times that "backstop means backstop."
Noting that the backstop is meant to be a legally enforceable fallback should negotiations fail, he said: "The temporary backstop is not in line with what we want or what Ireland and Northern Ireland want and need."
“This has to be a backstop that provides a guarantee under all circumstances... unless and until we find a solution,” he said.
"That is why the time-limited terminology doesn't work for us."
The time limit is believed to have been a key demand of British Brexit Secretary David Davis – who reportedly threatened to resign unless it was included.
Referencing the backstop proposal that was published in the EUs own draft withdrawal agreement, Mr Barnier warned that it was meant for Northern Ireland – and may not work for the rest of the UK.
“Northern Ireland would form part of our customs territory,” he said.
“What is feasible for a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible for the whole of the UK.”
The EU plan would see a “common regulatory area” between the EU and UK established in the North until a new trade arrangement, avoiding the need for border checks, is agreed.
Claiming that some Brexiteers wanted to blame Brussels for the fact that the UK cannot continue to enjoy the benefits of EU membership after leaving, Mr Barnier said: "We are not going to be intimidated by this form of blame game."
British Prime Minister Theresa May has already rejected the EU backstop plan, claiming it would threaten the "constitutional integrity" of the UK and warning that “no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it.”
Following the press conference, Mr Barnier tweeted to clarify he was not rejecting the UK's proposal as a whole.
To avoid any confusion between the EU backstop & the UK customs paper: I reiterate that our backstop cannot apply to whole UK. 4 freedoms are indivisible. This is not a rejection of the UK customs paper on which discussions continue. #Brexit— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) June 8, 2018
"To avoid any confusion between the EU backstop & the UK customs paper: I reiterate that our backstop cannot apply to whole UK. 4 freedoms are indivisible. This is not a rejection of the UK customs paper on which discussions continue," he tweeted.
In response to Mr Barnier's comments, a UK government spokesperson reiterated the prime minister's view that she will "never accept a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK."
"We are also committed to maintaining the integrity of our own internal market. That position will not change.
"The Commission's proposals did not achieve this, which is why we have put forward our own backstop solutions for customs. All parties must recall their commitment in the Joint Report to protect the Belfast Agreement in all its parts.
"Michel Barnier has confirmed today that discussions will now continue on our proposal."
Speaking in Belfast, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that any attempt to put a time limit on a backstop would be unacceptable.
“When it comes to a legal guarantee that there will never be a hard border again on this island, I don’t think we can assume that it is achievable by 2021,” said Mr Varadkar.
“That is why it is very much the view of the Irish Government that the backstop - if it ever does have to come into place - should not have an expiry date on it.
“It should only expire if and when we have a new treaty that achieves what we all want to achieve; [...] no hard border on the island of Ireland.”
The DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds accused Mr Barnier of "an outrageous attempt to revert to the annexation of Northern Ireland" and claimed the EU official demonstrated "no respect for the principle of consent or the constitutional integrity of the UK."
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Brexit David Cullinane warned that, “backstop means backstop and June means June.”
“The backstop is an insurance policy for the North in the absence of a new trade agreement between Britain and the EU,” he said.
“Its purpose is to address the special and unique circumstances at play on the island of Ireland and to ensure that no hard border emerges via the implementation of World Trade Organisation rules.
“It is not possible, therefore, to have a temporary backstop -it has to be in place for as long as there is an absence of a trade agreement that avoids a hard border.
“The British proposals would scrap the backstop altogether; this cannot be allowed to happen.”
He said border issue has been kicked down the road “time and again” and urged the Government to “hit the pause button on talks” if concrete proposals are not in place by June.