Michel Barnier has told MEPs there remain insufficient grounds for reopening formal negotiations over the Brexit withdrawal agreement, six months after Theresa May and the European commission closed them.
In a private briefing with the European parliament’s leaders, the EU’s chief negotiator said Boris Johnson’s officials had yet to offer any “legally credible and workable” proposals to replace the Northern Irish backstop on which the two negotiating teams could build.
In an earlier briefing with diplomats representing the EU27, a senior member of Barnier’s Brexit team had described the ideas so far put forward during technical talks between officials on both sides as “aspirational”.
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“Another longish meeting without tangible progress on Wednesday,” said an EU diplomat, referring to the latest round of talks between the European commission and Johnson’s Brexit envoy, David Frost.
The last substantive Brexit negotiation took place in Strasbourg in March when the then prime minister and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, drafted an ill-fated adjunct to the withdrawal agreement emphasising the temporary nature of the Irish backstop. May’s deal was subsequently defeated in the Commons by the crushing margin of 149.
EU officials insisted that nearly two months after Johnson was made prime minister the gap between the two sides was still far too wide for any meaningful negotiation to take place with Downing Street and that British civil servants were still merely “talking about concepts”.
In the most recent talks between officials, Frost was said to have outlined ideas covering customs and manufactured goods in which Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be in separate customs and regulatory zones.
Sources said Johnson’s envoy had suggested an “enhanced market surveillance mechanism” for industrial goods involving tough penalties for those who seek to smuggle contraband over the border.
Frost had said the UK could commit to an open border in the withdrawal agreement but that the detail of how checks could be done away from the border would have to be decided during the stand-still transition period catered for in the withdrawal agreement.
The EU insists that there must be a legally operable plan for avoiding a hard border in any withdrawal agreement and that it will not accept a deal based on a promise.
While diplomats said there was growing belief that the UK was likely to table concrete plans in October, there was concern that the groundwork was not yet being done in order for the ideas to receive a positive reception in Brussels.
Speaking after the MEPs’ briefing with Barnier, the president of the European parliament, David Sassoli, offered a gloomy prognosis.
The Italian MEP told reporters: “Unfortunately, the signals that we are getting aren’t indicating that there is any initiative that could reopen the negotiations. At least not the way we see it. And we are unhappy about that.
“You’re familiar with Michel Barnier’s view, he expressed it this morning in the conference of presidents’ meeting. We would like there to be initiatives to discuss but unfortunately there aren’t any.”
Sassoli added: “Up to now I can see, and I would like to stress this point, the UK hasn’t proposed any alternatives. Anything that has been legally credible and workable … You can’t have an agreement without the backstop. It couldn’t really be any clearer.”Q&A
What is a Northern Ireland-only backstop?Show Hide
The British government’s version of Brexit involves the UK ultimately leaving the single market and customs union, requiring the return of a range of checks on goods crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The “backstop” is intended as a standstill placeholder to ensure such checks do not have to be imposed between Brexit happening with a deal, and the start of a new free trade agreement yet to be negotiated between the UK and the EU.
Theresa May's withdrawal agreement proposed keeping the whole of the UK in a shared customs territory with the EU during this period. An alternative idea involves only Northern Ireland staying in the EU’s customs territory. That would place a customs border in the Irish Sea. May described it as a threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK, but the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has opened the current talks by proposing an all-Ireland agri-food zone. The suggestion is that he will seek to quietly build on that with further NI-only arrangements.
Given an NI-only backstop was an EU proposal in the first place, the U-turn would be warmly welcomed in Brussels, although attempts to give the Northern Ireland assembly a veto on its continuation would not be acceptable, and the DUP would be unlikely to support the prime minister in such a move in parliament.
If there is a no-deal Brexit, then there is no backstop.
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The European parliament’s president reiterated the EU’s offer of reverting back to a Northern Ireland-only backstop that would avoid the whole of the UK remaining in a shared customs territory with the bloc and allow for an independent trade policy.
“We are willing to go back to the original EU proposal, this is a significant point,” he said. “We are willing to go back to the original proposal that the backstop will only be for Northern Ireland.”
The UK government insists that it will not accept any backstop that leaves Northern Ireland in a separate customs territory and regulatory areas for goods other than agrifood.
But there remains some confidence that the UK might move in that direction in order to put a last-gasp deal before parliament and avoid a further Brexit extension.
One diplomat added that the UK “now seems better to recognise the unique situation on the island of Ireland”.
They added: “Given that time is quickly running out what is needed now are concrete, workable and realistic proposals from the UK. No 10 needs to understand that the time for ‘wish-wash’ is over if it wants to find a solution.”