EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier hit a conciliatory tone when reacting to the latest UK proposals on Friday (20 July) – which nevertheless the EU consider insufficient for a breakthrough, as the risk of a ‘no-deal’ increases.

Barnier again warned, however, that without an agreement on the Irish border there will be no Brexit divorce agreement and no transition period.

But he did open the way for alternative solutions other than the so-called ‘backstop’ put forward by the EU, that would see Northern Ireland practically stay in the customs union and parts of the single market.

Barnier briefed the 27 EU affairs ministers after he held his first meeting on Thursdaywith the new UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, after the resignation of David Davis over a week ago.

British prime minister Theresa May ruled out the backstop option again on Friday in a speech in Belfast, saying she could never agree to a border on the Irish Sea.

May has committed to a backstop in principle in a political agreement reached with the EU last December and again in a letter in March.

The EU sees securing the new external border of the EU after Brexit as a key issue in the withdrawal agreement that needs to be negotiated by October to have enough time for ratification by the British and European parliaments before Brexit takes effect next March.

For the EU, it is a guarantee to the integrity of the single market. The EU and the UK agreed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland not to risk the peace agreement reached on the island in 1998.

“This requires, in particular, a legally operative backstop, an all-weather insurance policy to address the issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” Barnier said.

“I made it clear yesterday to Dominic Raab that we are not asking for a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We need checks on goods, because the UK wants to leave the customs union and the single market and our common commercial policy. We cannot afford to lose time on the issue,” he said.

13 weeks

The EU has invited UK negotiators next week for on talks on the Irish border.

“We are open to any solutions as long as they are workable, and can be transformed into a legally operative text in time for the withdrawal agreement,” Barnier said, adding: “It is not necessarily our backstop.”

“We need to find the right place and right time to carry out checks to protect consumers and to protect the single market,” he said.

The chief negotiator added that the deal can be agreed in October or November to have time for the ratifications. He pointed out that around 13 weeks are left to talk before EU leaders’ summit in October.

“It is not the matter of needing more time, but choosing the right decision,” Barnier told reporters, pleading for pragmatism. “We need to de-dramatise things,” he added.

The meeting on Friday was also the first chance for ministers to talk about the so-called white paper , key proposals on the future relationship drawn up by British prime minister Theresa May, which have already been undermined by hardline Brexiteers in parliament, by amendments to a trade bill, as well as the resignations of foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis.

Lukewarm

The EU gave a lukewarm welcome to the paper.

Conscious of May’s fragile political situation in London, EU ministers were keen not to be harsh on the white paper, that they see as part of the next phase of talks on the future partnership, rather than the urgent negotiations needed to finalise the withdrawal agreement.

Barnier questioned some other key aspects in the white paper, as well as the Irish border.

He highlighted the UK’s plan is to align with EU standards on goods only that are checked at the border, and the added bureaucracy.

Plus Barnier pointed to the ‘facilitated customs arrangement’ whereby the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU, and how to avoid unfair competitive advantage for British firms if there is alignment on services.

Barnier, however, added that “several elements [in the white paper] does open the way a construction discussion on the future”.

Risk of ‘no-deal’ never so high

EU officials said despite the long wait for the UK’s position on the future partnership, the white paper, and the political turmoil in London, the bloc was keen to send a positive message on the white paper.

“We try to keep the process alive, but the risk of a no-deal was never so high,” an EU official told EUobserver.

The EU is painfully aware that it is questionable if May could master a majority for any withdrawal agreement in the UK parliament, and also acknowledge that the proposals in the white paper do not reflect the EU’s red lines.

“We have to sit down with the British and find out how much room of manoeuvre they have,” the source added.

But the mood was generally bleak among EU ministers, as months of UK internal political struggle has not provided any clear direction or breakthrough for the negotiations.

“The no deal scenario has never been as likely as it is now; its consequences would be significant mostly for the UK – but also for the EU,” Polan’s EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanki said after the meeting.

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