Wednesday 19 December 2018

Barnier vows EU will 'do everything' to avoid backstop

Michel Barnier: The European Union’s lead Brexit negotiator Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg
Michel Barnier: The European Union’s lead Brexit negotiator Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The EU will "do everything" to avoid activating the Irish backstop after the Brexit transition period, negotiator Michel Barnier insisted.

Amid calls for British Prime Minister Theresa May to delay her doomed Brexit vote on Tuesday, Mr Barnier sought to reassure MPs who are fearful of being trapped in the EU customs union indefinitely.

But he warned: "If there is no withdrawal treaty, there is no transition, no basis of confidence that we need with the British regarding the future relationship."

Mr Barnier told a gathering of the European Committee of the Regions that it was key now that the withdrawal treaty agreed between Brussels and London be ratified. "Now is the moment for everyone to bear their responsibilities. You know the British parliament will give its verdict on this text and on the future relationship in the coming days. It is a vote in which the future of their country is at stake."

Mrs May's Conservatives are particularly sceptical about the fallback arrangement, or 'backstop', to guarantee that there is no return to the hard Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, seen as essential to preserving peace.

"This backstop," said Mr Barnier. "We will do everything we can to avoid using it."

In London, Mrs May is coming under increasing pressure to rethink her strategy ahead of Tuesday's make or break vote.

Former prime minister Tony Blair has suggested she should postpone the vote rather than go down to a heavy defeat.

Mr Blair said that instead of trying to force her plan through against opposition from both Brexiteers and Remainers, the PM should play the role of "facilitator" to find a compromise which can command a majority in the House of Commons.

But he predicted that none of the Brexit options on offer would prove capable of attracting majority support from MPs, and the question would then have to be put back to the public in a second referendum.

On the ballot paper for a re-run poll should be the choice of remaining in the EU, possibly with concessions on immigration and free movement if these could be obtained from Brussels, and the kind of hard Brexit favoured by those he termed "proper Brexiteers".

The former Labour leader said Mrs May faced the prospect of "hitting a brick wall at speed" in the "meaningful vote".

Asked if she should call the vote off, Mr Blair said: "Personally, I don't see what the point is in going down to a huge defeat."

However, Downing Street said the vote will go ahead as planned. Mrs May has repeatedly said if MPs reject her deal with Brussels, the only alternatives are leaving without a deal or reversing Brexit.

Meanwhile, fears of drugs and food shortages and ports being shut in a no-deal Brexit are mere "hiccups", former Brexit secretary David Davis has told MPs.

Admitting that a no-deal Brexit on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms would mean "practical issues", Mr Davis said the advantages would outweigh the problems.

He said he had negotiated the two-year transition period until 2021 to give the UK time to adjust, dismissing concerns including the deaths of patients due to medicine being unavailable.

"It was me that actually negotiated the implementation period element of this and for that reason, precisely because it's not without hiccups, it's not without issues.

"There will be practical issues in the first year of a WTO outcome.

"But that does not overwhelm the big advantages, the massive advantages, that having the freedom to negotiate our trade deals would give us."

Irish Independent

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