Thursday 19 September 2019

'Backstop is not just legal quibbling' - Emmanuel Macron warns Boris Johnson EU won't tear up Withdrawal Agreement

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Patrick Daly, Hugh O'Connell, Cormac McQuinn and Kevin Doyle

French President Emmanuel Macron has told Boris Johnson the EU will not tear up the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May.

Mr Macron told the British Prime Minister in Paris there could not be a "reshuffling" of the Withdrawal Agreement - but he left open the possibility of making some changes to the deal.

He backed the 30-day timescale suggested by German leader Angela Merkel on Wednesday for the UK to come forward with its proposals but warned the Irish backstop - the major stumbling block - was indispensable.

"We will not find a new Withdrawal Agreement within 30 days that will be very different from the existing one," he said as he spoke alongside the Prime Minister at Elysee Palace.

In an effort to avoid the EU being blamed if a no-deal Brexit is the outcome on October 31, he said failure to reach an acceptable deal would be "a political decision to be taken by the Prime Minister, it's not our decision".

Mr Johnson has demanded the backstop - a contingency plan aimed at ensuring a soft border with Ireland in all circumstances - should be scrapped.

Mr Macron said the Withdrawal Agreement and Irish backstop are "not just technical constraints or legal quibbling" but are "genuine, indispensable guarantees" to preserve stability in Ireland and the integrity of the single market.

He said the EU had "always said that it was available to discuss, depending on the wishes of the UK, our future relationship".

The two leaders were speaking ahead of their formal talks at the Elysee.

Mr Johnson stressed while he wants an agreement, the UK "must come out of the EU on October 31 - deal or no-deal".

He insisted alternatives to the backstop could be found as "where there's a will, there's a way".

Meanwhile, new customs checks and controls are set to be rolled out at ports and factories as the Government now accepts a hard Brexit is increasingly likely in just 10 weeks' time.

A high-level secret plan is still under discussion between the Government and European Commission.

It's understood it will involve new customs checks and controls on goods and veterinary checks on animals away from the Border at ports, factories and food-processing plants after October 31 if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

Such measures - to ensure Ireland complies with strict EU single market rules - are likely to create a logistical nightmare and lengthy delays with Government officials increasingly concerned by the lack of preparation by businesses for a hard Brexit.

"The big issue on any day one [after Brexit] is going to be logistical difficulties," Ireland's EU Commissioner Phil Hogan admitted in an interview with Independent.ie.

In a no-deal scenario, Irish officials will have to monitor goods and animals coming into the Republic from Northern Ireland.

A number of options for mitigating the effect of this are on the table but it's "not going to be pretty", a source said.

Checks will be at the "point of origin or destination, so [at] the factories or ports", a European Commission source said, adding there would be "leeway" in the days after the UK crashes out.

Relations between the UK and Ireland were further strained yesterday by an extraordinary pre-planned attack by Mr Hogan on Mr Johnson whom he said was "unelected" and "gambling" with the Good Friday Agreement.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney ruled out bilateral talks with the UK, accusing Mr Johnson of trying to "steamroll" Ireland with "new red lines".

Mr Hogan's speaking points for an event near the Border contained strident criticism of Mr Johnson. Although he did not utter them at the event in Louth, they were circulated with the tacit support of the EU leadership.

"The UK government needs to take responsibility for its choices before it is too late. Prime Minister Johnson's hero is Winston Churchill and he seems to view himself as a modern-day Churchill," Mr Hogan stated.

"However, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK government's only Churchillian legacy will be 'never have so few done so much damage to so many'."

The growing expectation that a no-deal Brexit is on the cards was underlined by Mr Coveney who said it was now "far more likely". He said "limited checks" would take place away from the Border.

Mr Hogan said checks "could be at point of origin or at point of destination".

He said 55pc of all exports from Britain to the North come through Dublin Port and are already automatically checked. But he raised issues around what would happen in Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint ports in the North.

"It's about the controls and checks to reassure the consumer that the quality of the product, whether it's product safety or food safety or whatever, they have to get reassurance in the mainland of Ireland or the mainland in Europe and in mainland of the United Kingdom, whatever," Mr Hogan said.

Without any deal, there will be an onus on Ireland to protect the integrity of the single market.

An all-island regime for sanitary and phytosanitary checks (SPS) on animals would help to do this, commission sources said, but such an agreement may not be possible in a crash-out scenario.

Agri-business, including many beef farmers, will be devastated by the reversion to WTO tariffs once the UK becomes a third country.

But Mr Hogan insisted there would be up to €1bn in financial support for the EU agriculture sector.

"There's ongoing negotiations and discussions about all scenarios and we're ready. We have 19 pieces of legislation approved in the European Union and we have 16 pieces of legislation that are approved by the UK," he said.

"We have to work together to ensure that we have a seamless transition towards ensuring that there's not major disruption for people's lives."

Officially, the European Commission has refused to say if Dublin's plans to carry out checks away from the Border would satisfy its EU obligations.

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