Sunday

5th Feb 2023

Brexit deal in jeopardy as May refuses EU's Irish option

  • EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier with the 119-page draft withdrawal agreement (Photo: European Commission)

The EU draft proposal on the Brexit withdrawal agreement suggests a common customs area in the island of Ireland, drawing fierce criticism from London, which accused EU negotiators of trying to break up the UK's constitutional order.

The proposal means that some EU rules would continue to apply in Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland that could undermine peace. The EU's plan would create a de facto east-west border in the Irish Sea between the UK and Northern Ireland.

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British prime minister Theresa May rejected the idea by saying that no British prime minister could ever accept a deal like that. It could put the entire deal in jeopardy unless the UK comes up with viable proposals to maintain a soft border.

The plan for the Irish issue was dealt with in the draft exit deal that the EU Commission unveiled on Wednesday (28 February).

Speaking in parliament in London at the same time as chief EU negatiator Michel Barnier presented the draft in Brussels, May said she wanted to avoid a hard border.

The Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland party on which depends May's minority government in Westminster, also rejected the idea.

Barnier dismissed suggestions the proposal was aimed at shocking the UK into an agreement, or to tear the UK apart.

"This backstop [option] will not call into question the UK constitutional and institutional order, we respect that," the French politician said.

"I'm not trying to provoke. But it is the UK that decided unilaterally to leave the EU, and unilaterally initiated negotiations last March, which established the date of leaving, and we are 13 months into that date," Barnier added.

The text is a 119-page long draft of the Brexit deal, that includes conditions for a transition period after the UK leaves the EU, which still needs to be discussed with EU member states before the commission will start negotiating it with the UK government.

The agreement would guide the rules for citizens' rights, financial settlement and on the border between the republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

On Northern Ireland the commission worked out the fallback option. Last December, principle withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK, which almost failed because of the Irish border issue, basically kicked the problem down the line.

It gave three options on how to deal with the conundrum: within the context of a wider EU-UK future relationship deal, or the British should come up with innovative solutions to avoid a hard border.

An EU-UK future deal is distant, and the British proposals on technological solutions to maintaining an open border so far were insufficient.

The EU therefore set out in detail the third option whereby Northern Ireland would retain the EU's rules on goods, sanitation and agriculture, environment rules and the customs code.

The commission argues that it is something that the UK signed up to in the December agreement, and it should not come as a surprise.

"Daily life around the border should continue as today," Barnier said.

EU officials pointed out that the list of issues where rules between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would not be aligned is longer than that of where it would need to be harmonised.

Barnier will meet with Northern Ireland leaders early next week to explain the option in detail. He added that the EU would engage in a new round of negotiations with the UK next week.

Pick up pace

The EU's proposal also reflects a deep frustration with the UK's position, which has triggered the withdrawal process, setting the date of withdrawal on March 2019, without having a clear notion on what sort of relationship it wants with the bloc.

"If we wish to make a success of these negotiations, and I certainly do, we must pick up the pace," Barnier warned, adding that in 13 months the UK will no longer be a member state.

Barnier said that negotiations will have to conclude early November at the latest on the withdrawal agreement, so that the EU council and parliament and the UK parliament have enough time to ratify it before the UK leaves on 29 March 2019.

The exit deal also includes the terms of the two-year transition period, which also needs to be agreed. Barnier warned that there are still serious outstanding issues on application of EU rules, the end date or duration of the transition period, and citizens' rights.

Without the exit agreement there could be no transition deal either, raising the possibility there there would be no agreement at all by the autumn. Barnier said the EU is preparing for "every situation".

"At this point transitions is not a given," Barnier said.

He also warned that the vision May is expected to outline on the future relationship in a speech on Friday, namely having a mixture of common and diverging EU regulations after Brexit – is not acceptable.

"I think it would be illusory to imagine that on the EU side we accept cherry picking," the chief negotiator said.

Meanwhile the EU machinery moves on despite the political stalemate paralysing the negotiations.

EU ambassadors will start working on the elements of the EU guidelines for talks on the future relationship after Brexit on 7 March, which are expected to be discussed by European affairs ministers at their meeting on 20 March in Brussels.

Those guidelines are then expected to be adopted on 23 March.

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