'I'm doing all I can' - Barnier reiterates no renegotiation on backstop as he tries to ensure Brexit deal
- No-deal Brexit 'less likely' in wake of May plan for votes
- Hardliner Brexiteers fear move is a plot to stop Britain from leaving the EU entirely
THE European Union's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday that he was trying his utmost to ensure there was a deal on Brexit, though he reiterated the Irish backstop could not be renegotiated.
"I am doing all I can," Barnier told France Info radio this morning. He added that the border backstop "cannot be renegotiated".
As the Dáil last night debated emergency legislation for a worst-case Brexit, there was hope in Government circles that the planned sequence of votes in the House of Commons could prevent a no-deal scenario.
Senior sources said the latest developments in London "would seem to make a no-deal scenario much less likely".
While the situation was still said to be "volatile", the Irish Government believes it is unlikely MPs would vote for a no-deal Brexit.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's plan is set to be debated in Westminster today with up to three days of votes to take place next month if it is approved.
She outlined her proposals in a statement in the House of Commons.
She said she didn't want a delay and was still seeking assurances from the EU on the backstop to avoid a hard Border in Ireland that would win MPs' approval for her Withdrawal Agreement.
She announced a "meaningful vote" in parliament on her Brexit deal would take place by March 12.
If that fails, a vote on whether the UK should leave the EU without a deal would take place on the next day.
If this too is rejected by MPs, a further vote will take place on March 14 on whether the UK should ask Brussels for an extension of Article 50.
Mrs May said she wanted any delay to be "as short as possible" and would not go beyond the end of June.
She also said: "Let me be clear, I do not want to see Article 50 extended. Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on March 29."
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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Mrs May of "kicking the can down the road".
He favours a Brexit agreement that would see the UK staying in a customs union and said his party would support a second referendum if his proposed deal was rejected.
Conservative arch-eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed a delay to Brexit "would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit".
Fellow Brexiteer Peter Bone warned Mrs May that voters would regard it as a "betrayal".
However, former British Chancellor Ken Clarke said he wanted to congratulate Mrs May on "accepting that we're not remotely ready for the chaos of a no-deal departure on March 29".
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe last night said Ireland would not block an extension of the Brexit deadline.
An Government spokesman said "our goal is to see a deal agreed" and that short of the UK deciding to stay in the EU, it was the "best outcome for Ireland".
He added: "In the absence of that, we are open to an extension of the Article 50 deadline in order to avoid a crash out on March 29".
He said an agreement would still need to be reached regardless of whether an extension is in place.
Separately, the UK government published its latest assessment of the implications of a no-deal Brexit on trade. It states that the effect on Northern Ireland would be more severe than in Britain.
The document reiterates the UK government's commitment to avoiding a hard Border "in any scenario".
It also promises that the UK will "shortly publish further details on its immediate, temporary, arrangements for trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland in a no-deal scenario".
It says that in such a scenario the UK government "would need to work urgently with the Irish Government and the EU to find any sustainable longer-term solution".
The Government here has consistently said it is not planning for a hard Border. Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said the Government would push for regulatory alignment similar to what's in the current backstop in the event of crisis talks on avoiding a hard Border.
His spokesman declined to speculate on what the temporary arrangements mentioned in the UK government documents would be.
He said that the British document "only serves to underline that a no-deal Brexit would be bad for everyone" and "unfortunately worst for Northern Ireland".