The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has rejected the idea of applying a ”backstop” solution to the Northern Ireland border to the whole UK, arguing that to do so would not be “feasible”.
Speaking in Brussels on Friday Michel Barnier also said Europe would not be “intimidated” by Brexiteers’ “blame game” for the downsides of leaving the EU.
The British government on Thursday unveiled a white paper spelling out its plan for a so-called “backstop” to prevent a hard border in Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc.
The UK rejected an earlier Brussels plan to keep Northern Ireland aligned with EU regulations and customs procedures, which would introduce customs checks on ferries across the Irish sea. The UK’s plan tries to get around introducing checks by keeping the whole UK aligned with those rules, and also introduces a time-limit on the backstop.
But while Mr Barnier said he was continuing the study the UK proposals, he warned that applying the backstop plan to the whole UK was not an option.
“Let me be very clear: our backstop cannot be extended to the whole UK. Why? Because it has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“What does it do? On customs, Northern Ireland would form part of our customs territory. What is feasible with a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK.
“On regulatory alignment we have been pragmatic and developed the least disruptive system for citizens and businesses on both sides. Let’s go to pragmatism. Checks carried out on ferries are less disruptive than along a 500km land border.”
He also suggested the backstop could not be time-limited or temporary, as the UK has requested, warning: “Backstop means backstop.”
The chief negotiator said he would continue looking at the UK’s proposals, despite highlighting what he said were a series of problems with them. He said the plan needed to address “full regulatory alignment” rather than only customs, that it needed to respect the integrity of the single market, and that the arrangement should be “all-weather” and prevent a hard border in all circumstances.
Asked why he was continuing to look at the British proposal if he had raised such fatal flaws with it, he said: “Because I look at all British proposals in an objective manner.”
Mr Barnier repeated his familiar refrain that Britain’s negotiators appeared to want to keep the benefits of the EU without accepting the obligations of membership.
But he added: “When we tell our British counterparts that these benefits are not accessible outside the system created by the European Union… some parties in the United Kingdom are responsible for the consequences of that decision.
“Let me say the following: we’re not going to be intimidated by this form of blame game. The United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union; we respect that democratic decision and we are implementing it.”