BRUSSELS • The European Union could maintain much of its sway in Northern Ireland after Brexit under a draft treaty published yesterday that caused anger in London and Belfast as the EU warned that time was running out for a deal.
Brussels' chief negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, denied that the proposal for avoiding a disruptive EU-Britain "hard border" on the island of Ireland would loosen Northern Ireland's constitutional ties to the rest of the United Kingdom and stressed he was open to other solutions to the border dilemma that Britain may offer.
"Daily life around the border should continue as today," Mr Barnier told reporters as the European Commission published its draft withdrawal treaty.
However, he rammed home that "time is short" before Britain will be out of the EU in exactly 13 months. He called on Prime Minister Theresa May to "pick up the pace" of negotiations so that a withdrawal treaty, including terms for keeping the status quo during a two-year transition period, could be agreed this autumn in order to be ratified by parliaments before next March.
He repeated that the EU is "preparing for every situation" in case no deal is struck and the continent's second-biggest economy lurches chaotically out of the Union after 46 years.
Mrs May will lay out her vision for a post-Brexit free trading relationship with the EU tomorrow. She will also make a statement to Parliament about Brexit on Monday, the Speaker of Parliament's Lower House said.
The Prime Minister said no government could ever agree to the EU proposals and that she would work to protect British unity in the negotiations. She again ruled out a Customs union - something that her Labour opponents advocate as a way to avoid disruptive controls at Ireland's EU-Britain border.
Speaking in Parliament in London while Mr Barnier was speaking in Brussels, she repeated that she wanted to avoid a hard border. Her pro-British allies in Belfast pulled no punches in deriding Brussels' proposals for a "common regulatory area" comprising the EU and Northern Ireland.
"This is a ludicrous, over-the-top suggestion put forward by Michel Barnier. It will not go anywhere. The way forward is to get into the trade talks and then and only then will you know what the border arrangements need to be," Mr Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) told BBC Radio Ulster.
The DUP props up Mrs May's minority government by providing support for its Brexit legislation.
Unionists fear that raising new barriers with the British mainland could increase the chances of a future move to reunite the province with the Irish Republic, an EU member.