‘We can be flexible on the border’

can flexible border barnier varadkar
L TO R. Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have said Ireland and Brussels are prepared to compromise on the Northern Irish border backstop to secure a Brexit deal.

The Taoiseach Mr Varadkar said last week that Ireland is willing to be “flexible” on a backstop plan to avoid a hard border. He said: “What matters is not the detailed legal text, it’s the outcome. What we want the backstop to achieve is a guarantee that there won’t be a hard border.”

At the weekend Mr Barnier said he believed a unique deal can be done but not at the cost of the European Union’s greatest achievements – the single market and four freedoms. Their remarks come as Tory Brexiteers tried to pin the blame for a no deal Brexit on everyone but themselves and attacked what they called the EU’s uncompromising attitude.

The European Commission dismissed claims by pro-Brexit Tory MPs hoping to crash out of the EU with no deal. It said its officials – led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier – are “working constructively, day and night, to reach a deal” and that there will be another round of negotiations next week on 16 and 17 August.

“An agenda will be published in due course and the chief negotiator is – as he has always been by the way – based on the negotiating position agreed by the 27 member states and that’s reflected in the European Commission guidelines,” said a Commission spokesperson.

can flexible border barnier varadkar

The comments followed British Prime Minister Theresa May’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in the south of France. But even as Mrs May’s anti-EU rebels try to blame everyone but themselves for the failure they anticipate, chief negotiator Michel Barnier – in an article published in several European newspapers at the weekend – said the European Union is prepared to compromise on its post-Brexit solution for the Northern Irish border so that agreement can be reached on the withdrawal bill before the October deadline.

In his article he said: “Since we will not know what the future relationship will bring by autumn 2018, we need to have a backstop solution in the withdrawal agreement.

Better solution

“The EU and the UK have said that a better solution in the future relationship could replace the backstop. “The EU has proposed that Northern Ireland remains in a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU. We are ready to improve the text of our proposal with the UK.”

The wording of the backstop – which has yet to be converted to legally binding text or Treaty-speak – says that in the absence of agreement Northern Ireland must remain in the customs union and aligned to the single market. Although agreed last December by the British government Prime Minister May immediately disowned it after an angry reaction from the DUP which keeps her minority government in power.

Last month Mrs May’s government published its Chequers white paper on its future relationship with the EU that proposed the UK staying in the customs union for goods, but not for services, to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Since then, and following an angry rejection by Brexiteers, her newly-appointed Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said that the backstop must be time-limited and apply to all of the UK.

Mr Barnier dismantled the UK white paper saying that the EU could hardly be expected to give up control of its borders or taxes and any all-UK solution, as proposed, risked undermining the integrity of the single market. Mr Barnier’s tone was upbeat, positive and conciliatory – in marked contrast to Mrs May’s party colleagues.

He said he was “confident that the negotiations can reach a good outcome”.

“Some UK proposals would undermine our Single Market which is one of the EU’s biggest achievements. “The UK wants to keep free movement of goods between us, but not of people and services.

“And it proposes to apply EU customs rules without being part of the EU’s legal order.

“Thus, the UK wants to take back sovereignty and control of its own laws, which we respect, but it cannot ask the EU to lose control of its borders and laws.”

But, he said, the EU was “ready to improve the text” of its proposal for a “backstop” arrangement.

“It is possible to respect EU principles and create a new and ambitious partnership. The UK must not be allowed to “undermine” the four pillars of the single market: the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour, he said.

Close cooperation

“If we quickly find solutions to the withdrawal issues, including the backstop for Ireland, I am sure we can build a future partnership between the EU and the UK that is unprecedented in scope and depth,” he said.

He also suggested the EU wants to continue its “very close cooperation” with the UK on security and foreign policy and has an obvious “interest” in remaining a “close partner” with “common values” and a “a number of common interests.”

The UK has said it wants to stay in the customs union and single market until the end of 2020.


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