Brexit: Talks ‘should not be a pretence’ warns Barnier

Michel BarnierImage copyright Reuters
Image caption The EU’s chief negotiator acknowledged Boris Johnson’s concerns about the backstop

The UK and EU “should not pretend to be negotiating” a Brexit deal if there are no new proposals on the table, the EU’s chief negotiator has said.

Michel Barnier said the UK telling the EU what it does not like about the current agreement was “not enough”.

He cast doubt on two ideas put forward by the UK – a single all-Ireland zone for agriculture and livestock and a Northern Irish veto over EU rules.

Boris Johnson has said there is a “landing zone” for an agreement.

He has said a deal is possible at a crucial summit of EU leaders on 17 October – although ministers have said they are reluctant to reveal the details of new proposals in advance for fear they will be “rubbished” by the EU.

Mr Johnson has insisted he will not accept a further delay beyond 31 October despite MPs passing a law requiring him to seek an extension if there is no deal by 19 October.

After meeting Mr Barnier and Mr Juncker in Luxembourg on Monday, Mr Johnson said the process of trying to get a deal on the terms of exit would be accelerated.

‘Not enough’

Briefing the European Parliament, Mr Juncker said the lunch had been “friendly and constructive” but there had been no progress on the main sticking point – the UK’s demand that the Northern Irish backstop should be removed from the current agreement.

Mr Juncker said any alternative to the backstop must achieve the same objectives – to prevent the need for physical infrastructure on the border with the Republic of Ireland, to safeguard the EU’s single market and protect all-Ireland economic co-operation.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The prime minister and Mr Juncker held a working lunch on Monday

“I said to Mr Johnson that I have no emotional attachment to the backstop but I stand by the objectives it is intended to achieve,” he said.

“That is why I called on the PM to come forward with operational proposals in writing, practical steps that would allow us to achieve those objectives.

“Until such time those proposals have been presented, I will not be able to tell you looking you straight in the eye that any real progress has been achieved.”

Mr Barnier said the UK had made it clear which parts of the backstop – which would see Northern Ireland closely tied to the single market and the UK follow EU customs rules until a new trade deal is agreed – it did not like, but “that is not enough to move towards a solution”.

If the UK wanted to remove the backstop, he said it must come up with answers to all the problems the temporary “safety net” was designed to solve.

However, he appeared to reject UK proposals to give the Stormont Assembly in Belfast a say over how much Northern Ireland conforms with EU customs rules and diverges from England, Wales and Scotland while the UK remained in any backstop arrangement.

“It is up to the UK government to ensure the support of the Northern Irish institutions for the withdrawal agreement that would be signed on behalf of the whole of the UK,” he said.

‘Caring nanny’

And addressing the UK’s proposal for Northern Ireland to follow EU agricultural regulations, he said there must be other guarantees, including on customs procedures, to protect food safety and animal health.

Following a three-hour debate on Brexit, the European Parliament approved a motion calling for the backstop to remain within the withdrawal agreement.

During the session, MEP Guy Verhofstadt called on the UK to give all three million EU nationals living in the country an automatic right to remain.

Rather than channelling the “angry Hulk” – a reference to Mr Johnson’s recent comparison of the UK to the Incredible Hulk – the Parliament’s Brexit spokesman said the PM should adopt the persona of a “caring nanny”, such as Mrs Doubtfire.

But Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said it was clear the UK and EU were paving the way for an agreement next month which would be portrayed as a “victory” for both sides.

Even without the backstop, he said the deal on the table would be “bad” for the UK as it would see it “trapped in EU rules and under the auspices of the European Court”.

He also criticised they way Mr Johnson was treated during a visit to Luxembourg last week.

He said the country’s “pipsqueak” leader Xavier Bettel had “ritually humiliated” his counterpart by appearing at a press conference without him and berating his Brexit policy.

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