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10th Dec 2023

Brexit deal 'within reach' says Barnier

  • Michel Barnier said the EU is still open to have the UK remain in the customs union (Photo: European Parliament)

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Wednesday (10 October) that the withdrawal agreement between the EU and UK is "within reach" if London agrees to keep either Northern Ireland or the entire UK in the bloc's customs union before a separate deal on future relations is reached.

"An agreement is within reach if we are to end these negotiations on the 17 October at the European Council [summit]," Barnier told European entrepreneurs in the European Parliament.

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Next Wednesday (17 October) over dinner the EU-27 leaders will hope to seal the outlines of a withdrawal agreement, ahead of the Brexit 'exit' date less than six months away in March 2019. Barnier said that deal was 80-85 percent ready. Another summit in November is planned to close the deal.

One key obstacle remaining is the Irish border issue - on how to keep the new EU-UK land border with Northern Ireland open as it becomes the EU's new external border on the island of Ireland.

The EU proposed a "backstop" solution to keep the Northern Ireland in the bloc's customs union and parts of the single market that underpins the 1998 peace agreement there - an option British prime minister Theresa May has rejected so far arguing it would create a border within the UK, in the North Sea between Northern Ireland and the mainland UK.

Barnier said that the EU remained open to staying in a customs union with the whole of the UK, making a hard border unnecessary. May has ruled this out. It would prevent the UK from having its own trade policy, a key demand of some of her hardline Brexiteers.

Earlier this week EU officials expected that a possible new UK proposal on the Irish border issue would suggest having the UK remain in the customs union indefinitely. That would allow for the UK and EU to sign off the deal.

While talks with Brussels have intensified since May emerged from her infighting Conservative party conference last week, there has been no breakthrough.

Barnier described how the EU's backstop proposal would organise customs and VAT, regulatory and sanitary checks between the UK and the EU.

He said the only "visible systematic" customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would mean scanning the barcodes on lorries or containers, which could be done on ferries or in transit ports, and filling out online customs declarations.

For industrial goods, he said checks could be done by "market surveillance authorities", and on-site in the companies. Checks of animals and animal-derived products would still have to take place between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and cover all of that trade.

Barnier tried to assure London by saying that the EU respects the constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the UK.

Besides the Irish border issue, the key areas still to be negotiated are the geographical indications of products and the governance of the implementation of the deal.

Standing ovation

Barnier warned that companies will have to adjust even if there is a Brexit deal. "It will not, and it cannot be business as usual," he said, adding that the European Commission has set up plans to help businesses.

"This vote is a pity and shame, it is better to be together. I think Brexit brings no added value, this is a negative negotiation, it is a lose-lose game, where nobody stands to win," Barnier said in the speech that was met with a standing ovation from small business leaders.

Barnier earlier in the day briefed EU commissioners on the negotiations. The EU-27 ambassadors will get an update on Friday evening. Then, EU leaders advisors are meeting on Monday in preparation for the summit.

Analysis

A post-Brexit rival to Galileo? Possible, but expensive

The United Kingdom and the EU need to figure out how much access the UK will have to the EU-funded satellite navigation system after Brexit. Now the UK will study whether to set up its own system.

New UK proposal on Irish border in final Brexit push

The UK could stay in the EU's customs union indefinitely to avoid crashing out of the EU as hopes for a new UK proposal on the Irish border issue grow in Brussels in the final phase of Brexit talks.

Brexit standoff continues before EU summit

As negotiations halt ahead of the EU summit later this week, British prime minister Theresa May told her parliament the Irish border issue should not derail a Brexit deal.

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