BRUSSELS • European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday said he was willing to consider alternative proposals to avoid a hard Irish border after Britain's exit from the bloc, giving embattled Prime Minister Theresa May some respite by softening his tone on the UK's proposed terms for the divorce.
"We need to de-dramatise things," Mr Barnier said. "I'm sure we'll find a way forward."
Mr Barnier noted that there were only 13 weeks until EU leaders meet for a summit, by when the European Union and Britain should have finalised a withdrawal agreement.
He told a news conference in Brussels following a meeting of EU ministers that 80 per cent of that agreement was already in place, but that there was still no agreement on how to avoid a hard Irish border after Britain leaves the bloc.
He said: "This requires a legally operative backstop, an all-weather insurance policy, to address the issues of Ireland and Northern Ireland. All 27 member states insist on this."
He said the UK outline of its future relationship with the bloc after Brexit offered a basis for discussion in some areas, while raising questions in others.
"As I told the ministers, there are several elements in this white paper that open the way to a constructive discussion regarding the political declaration on our future relationship," he said.
Mr Barnier cited the United Kingdom's focus on a trade agreement, its commitment to a level playing field and the willingness to continue cooperating on security.
Still, he questioned whether the British proposal was compatible with the EU need to maintain the integrity of its single market.
He added that he had put many questions to Britain, asking whether the proposals were workable and if they would create more red tape. "I would simply say that Brexit cannot be and will not be a justification for creating more bureaucracy," he said.
Earlier yesterday, Mrs May used a trip to Belfast to say that the notion of a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was "almost inconceivable".
She said: "The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal 'third country' Customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept."
The EU has warned businesses to get ready for Britain crashing out of the bloc without agreed terms, although officials and diplomats still think some kind of deal is more likely than not, if only because the cost for both sides would be so high.