The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier fired a broadside on Sunday at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson by insisting the Irish border backstop must stay.
Johnson has demanded that the backstop, a Brussels-insisted mechanism to ensure there is no hard EU frontier on the island of Ireland, must go as part of a new Brexit deal.
Writing in the London-based Sunday Telegraph, Barnier said the backstop is the maximum amount of flexibility that the EU can offer to a non-Member State, which Britain will become when it leaves the bloc.
If implemented, it would see Northern Ireland staying aligned to some rules of the EU single market, should Britain and the EU not agree on a trade deal after Brexit.
After talks last month with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Johnson indicated there has been some movement from the EU, raising hopes that Brussels may reach a new deal and remove the backstop arrangement.
Barnier said: “In the midst of the ongoing political debate in Westminster, I think it is worthwhile to point out that there remain many misrepresentations about the solution we have found to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“The backstop is all about managing the unique risks that Brexit creates in Northern Ireland, a fact that Prime Minister Boris Johnson recognises in his recent letter to President Donald Tusk (of the European Council).”
Barnier said the backstop fully respected the carefully negotiated balance found in the agreement between the competing political views and different identities in Northern Ireland. Its objective is simply to have an insurance policy in place that guarantees that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains fully open, and that the status quo of cross-border exchanges on the island of Ireland is maintained.
He added: “I believe that the people of Northern Ireland recognise and appreciate this offer more than Westminster does for now.”
Barnier said Johnson’s government has asked the EU to change what was agreed between Brussels and the British government when it was led by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.
May tried unsuccessfully on three occasions to win support for that deal in the House of Commons.
Barnier said the EU had committed itself to working with the UK, during the transition period on alternative arrangements that achieve the same objectives of the backstop.
“We are ready to start this work immediately upon ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, in parallel to finally creating clarity on our future relationship,” he noted.
The problem for Johnson is that agreement has already been rejected by Westminster MPs.
Barnier added: “I am not optimistic about avoiding a “no deal” scenario but we should all continue to work with determination. The EU is ready to explore all avenues that the UK government may present and that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Uncertainty has festered for far too long in the UK, in particular in Northern Ireland, as well as in Ireland and all other EU countries, for that matter.”
MPs return to Westminster Tuesday after their long summer recess, with an attempt expected to be made to win support for legislation to prevent Johnson leaving the EU on deadline date, Oct. 31, unless there is a deal in place with Brussels.
In a television interview on Sunday, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said MPs will seek to bring forward legislation this week to stop a no-deal Brexit.
Starmer said the plan would be to prevent Britain from getting out of the EU without a deal.