EU voices doubt about Britain's Irish border plan after Brexit

Dominic Raab (left) and Michel Barnier at the end of a final round of talks in Brussels, Belgium.
Dominic Raab (left) and Michel Barnier at the end of a final round of talks in Brussels, Belgium.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European Union negotiator Michel Barnier voiced doubt on Thursday (July 26) over whether Britain can relieve EU concerns about the Irish border and allow for a Brexit deal by the October deadline.

However, Barnier said he believes British negotiators he met in Brussels on Thursday "understood our concerns" about the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

The EU proposes that Northern Ireland stay aligned with the remaining 27 bloc members after Brexit as part of a "backstop", or insurance policy to avoid the reimposition of border checks and a risk to Irish peace gains.

But Britain, fearing the EU proposal would break up its territory, has suggested instead that the whole country remain aligned with the EU in certain areas, only until the end of 2021.

"We have no objection in principle to this," Barnier told a press conference in Brussels, flanked by his British counterpart Dominic Raab.

"But we have doubts that this can be done without putting at risk the integrity of our Customs Union, our Common Commercial Policy, our regulatory policy, and our fiscal revenue," the Frenchman said.

Barnier said the British side "has promised to come back to us with concrete proposals on how to address our concerns", which were conveyed in what he called "open and frank" talks.

As he did during his first talks last week with Raab, Barnier called for a "legally operative backstop," which he sees as essential for a withdrawal agreement by a late October deadline.

Britain is set to leave the bloc on March 30, but the two sides want to strike the divorce agreement by late October in order to give parliaments enough time to endorse a deal.

Raab gave no hint that his government would modify its proposal on the Irish backstop, which he repeated should be for a "time-limited" period.

"While of course more work needs to be done, our teams are approaching this issue in the right spirit," Raab told reporters.

"With pragmatism on both sides I am confident we can find a way to resolve it into a workable solution."

Raab said Britain had agreed to accelerate the Brexit negotiations, confirming the two sides would meet again in mid-August and continue talks weekly to clear the way for a deal in October.

Raab took up his job following a cabinet rebellion earlier this month against Prime Minister Teresa May's Brexit blueprint.

Barnier has welcomed parts of her blueprint, which would see Britain ask the EU for a free trade area for goods through a "facilitated customs arrangement" alongside a "common rulebook".

Brexiteers believe that keeps Britain too close to the EU, while pro-Europeans think it fails to protect the country's dominant services sector, among other gripes.