No backstop, no deal - Barnier demands "legally operative" Irish border solution

Theresa May says there can be no hard border in Ireland or new border in the Irish sea

No backstop, no deal - Barnier demands "legally operative" Irish border solution

Michel Barnier. Picture by: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/Press Association Images

Updated 14:50

The European Union's chief negotiator has warned that Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal unless a solution can be found on the Irish border.

Michel Barnier was speaking after the British Prime Minister called on the EU to "evolve its position" on the border issue.

In a major speech from Belfast, Theresa May ruled out any return to a hard border in Ireland - and insisted she cannot accept any solution that treats the North differently to Britain.

Speaking in Brussels this afternoon, Mr Barnier said talks must now focus on finalising a Withdrawal Agreement.

Withdrawal

He said the agreement - due to be signed at the next EU Council Summit in October - is a "prerequisite" for an orderly withdrawal, the two year transition period and a "solid partnership for the future."

He warned that the agreement "requires a legally operative backstop - and all weather insurance policy - to address the issues of Ireland and Northern Ireland," he said. "All 27 member states insist on this."

"Why? because we are committed to protecting Ireland and Northern Ireland against the consequences of Brexit and preserve the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions."

Backstop

He noted that Mrs May has already committed to a backstop solution - and warned it is "essential" she honours that commitment.

"I made clear yesterday to [new UK Brexit Secretary] Dominic Raab yesterday that we are not asking for a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK," he said.

"What we need is checks on goods because the UK wants to leave the Single Market, the Customs Union and our common commercial policy.

"We cannot afford to lose time on this issue and this is why we have invited the UK to work on the backstop next week.

He said the EU remains open to any solution to the impasse - " as long as they are workable and can be transformed into a legally operative text in time for the Withdrawal agreement."

British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) and DUP leader Arlene Foster during a visit to Belleek pottery factory on the northern side of theborder between Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and Ballyshannon in Donegal | Image: Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA Wire/PA Images

Belfast speech

This morning, Mrs May called on the EU to 'evolve its position' on the border.

She was speaking during the second day of her trip to Northern Ireland.

She warned that British MPs will veto the bloc's proposed Irish border solution - and claimed the EU's plan for an Irish border backstop deal is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mrs May again committed to ensuring there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland - but failed to outline how that can be achieved.

"In the Northern Ireland of today, where a seamless border enables unprecedented levels of trade and co-operation North and South, any form of infrastructure at the border is an alien concept," she said.

"The seamless border is a foundation stone on which the Belfast Agreement rests, allowing for the just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.

"Anything that undermines that is a breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement - an agreement that we have committed to protect in all its parts and the EU says it will respect."

Backstop

The EUs Draft Withdrawal Agreement proposes that, in the event no other solution is found, a “common regulatory area” should be established in the North, unless and until a new trade arrangement is agreed.

The common regulatory area would see the North following EU customs rules and regulations. 

"As Prime Minister for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland it is my duty to serve the whole UK and to govern in the interest of every part of it.

"That defines the approach I have taken in Government over the past two years.

"As we leave the EU I have made protecting and strengthening our own precious union - by making sure the deal we strike works for every part of the UK - an absolute priority." 

The Tánaiste Simon Coveney is in Brussels this morning for a meeting of the EU General Affairs Council.

He met with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier this morning and, ahead of Mrs May speech, he warned the backstop proposal does not threaten the Good Friday Agreement - but Brexit does.

He noted that the EU "will always defend the Good Friday Agreement."

Border

Mrs May said she has consistently rejected any suggestion of a return to a hard border in Ireland.

She said anyone who operates a cross-border business can tell you that border checks would be "inconceivable." 

"The reality is that any agreement we reach with the EU will have to provide for the frictionless movement of goods across the Northern Ireland border," she said.

"Equally clear, we could never accept that the way to prevent a hard border with Ireland is to create a new border within the UK.

"It would not be showing parity of esteem and just and equal treatment of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland to cut their  part of the UK off from the rest of the UK."

Britain's own counter-offer on a backstop agreement, which includes a time-limit on any arrangement, was rejected outright by Brussels.

Open to offers

On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, the Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said Ireland is open to alternative proposals on the backstop.

He said Theresa May has continually committed to avoiding a "hard border" in Ireland - and warned that any UK proposal has to fully deliver on that commitment.

"In relation to where we stand, we are very clear," he said.

"We will be insisting on the retention of a backstop or something that is agreed and that is better and that is legally operable.

"We will be doing this because it is clear to us and the European Union that this is the only framework that can cope with the uncertainty that could lie ahead.

"That being said I do welcome the fact that Prime Minister May has continually committed to no hard border developing on our island again and I believe she is very strongly committed to delivering that objective."

He noted that he has "always been exceptionally concerned about the impact of Brexit on our economy and on our State."

He said the prospect of a no deal Brexit is, "as you would expect, a very major concern for us" but insisted he has faith in the ability of both sides to find a solution.

He said Mrs has, thus far, "shown considerable skill and vast determination in getting to where she is now - and that should be recognised."

Preparations for all Brexit outcomes

It comes as the European Commission has told EU states to "step up preparations" for all Brexit outcomes.

In a communication on Thursday, it noted that "no progress" has been made in agreeing a 'backstop' to avoid a hard Irish border.

It called on member states, including Ireland, to "step up preparations" following a request last month by the by the European Council to intensify preparedness at all levels and for all outcomes.

Additional reporting: Jack Quann