EU negotiator: we’re ready to come up with a better backstop proposal

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said he is ready to come forward with an “improved” proposal on the Irish border.

After briefing EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday night, he insisted the EU offer would respect the “territorial integrity” of the UK.

Michel Barnier

Michel Barnier

His comments came as EU leaders prepare to gather in Salzburg today for a summit – the first time they have met together since Mrs May published her Chequers blueprint for Brexit in July.

The Prime Minister is expected to brief the other 27 leaders on proposals over dinner and they will then have a separate discussion on Thursday after she has left.

The EU is insisting on a “backstop” proposal which would see Northern Ireland remain in the customs union in the event of the two sides failing to reach an agreement.

However Mrs May has rejected the plan as unacceptable, arguing that it would effectively create a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Prime Minister Theresa May in London on Sept 17, 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May in London on Sept 17, 2018

Mr Barnier said he was working on a plan to “de-dramatise” the controls necessary in the event of the backstop coming into play.

“We are ready to improve this proposal. Work on the EU side is ongoing,” he said.

“We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked and where, when and by whom these checks could be performed.

“We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border at the company premises or in the markets. We need to de-dramatise the checks that are needed.”

He said what is needed is a “legally operational backstop which fulls respects the territorial integrity of the UK”.

He said the next full summit of EU leaders on October 18 is the “moment of truth” when it would become clear if both sides can do a deal.

Any deal has to be finalised well in advance of the UK’s March 29, 2019 exit from the bloc so the parliaments in Westminster and Strasbourg can sign off on it.

Mr Barnier’s comments came after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had earlier told the Dail in Dublin: “I do not anticipate there will be any change to the EU’s position or any change to our negotiating guidelines.”

It also followed remarks from Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who said it is time “compromises” made by the UK are “matched on the EU side”.

“What I’m not going to do is to say that I would refuse to entertain any further proposals that the EU comes up with, but they’ve got to be respecting the equities that we’ve set out,” he said.

On Monday, Mrs May had framed the decision facing the country as a choice between her Chequers deal or no deal.

The prime minister’s Chequers plan had set out a vision of “ongoing harmonisation” with EU rules in an EU-UK “free trade area”, paying “due regard” to EU courts, and paying “appropriate contributions” to the EU.

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson had previously voiced unhappiness with some aspects of the plan.

On Tuesday night he told the News Letter: “First of all the EU have to face up to reality – they’re not going to get Northern Ireland separated from the rest of the UK, because we will not support any move by the government to do that, and other parties in the House of Commons have said the same.”

But he also had this warning for Mrs May, saying that “she’s got to bear in mind the arithmetic of the House of Commons and begin to move on her position as well” – a reference to the fact she only commands a Commons majority with DUP support.

Echoing comments made by the party earlier in the week, Mr Wilson also welcomed suggestions that the EU could be more open to considering technological solutions to the question of managing the Irish border after Brexit – something the Prime Minister herself has previously voiced doubts about.

He branded people who continually kept pouring cold water on the idea of tech-based fixes “pathetic parrots”.

He cited, for example, the idea that well-known firms could be given ‘trusted trader’ status when they move containers across the border.

They would input the details of goods which are due to cross the border into a computer, affix an identifier to the vehicle, and this could be scanned electronically when it crosses the border.

If any spot check revealed discrepancies in the goods being carried, the firm would lose its ‘trusted trader’ status.

Smaller volumes of goods from minor companies or farmers could well just be “ignored”, he said.

Asked which aspect of May’s plans were most important to drop, he said the ones about remaining under EU rules by creating a kind of “regulatory alignment”.

Whilst he said politicians may deem it desirable to adhere to certain EU rules past-Brexit anyway, he said this should be done “voluntarily”, not as part of an overarching pact.