Tuesday 22 January 2019

UK can't dodge making hard calls on Brexit, warns Barnier

EU negotiator talks tough ahead of May speech

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May meets with European Union Council President Donald Tusk at 10 Downing Street in London. Photo: Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May meets with European Union Council President Donald Tusk at 10 Downing Street in London. Photo: Reuters

Shona Murray

British politicians need to give up the notion that they can avoid the tough choices resulting from Brexit, the EU's chief negotiator has said.

Speaking on the eve of British Prime Minister Theresa May's keenly awaited speech, Michel Barnier said that Brussels was waiting to hear what the UK wanted on issues ranging from trade to security and aviation.

He made clear that the UK had still not put forward proposals for keeping the Irish Border open, which might avoid the need for the European Commission "backstop option".

Yet, on Wednesday, this option was rejected out of hand by Mrs May as effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union.

"If the UK has better ideas on how to avoid a hard Border while preserving the integrity of the single market, we are ready to look at them in a very constructive way," he said.

Speaking to a business conference in Brussels, he said he hoped Mrs May's address would "help us move the negotiation forward by setting out her vision of the future relationship".

But he warned: "Any vision of the future must take into account the fact that the EU cannot and will not compromise on its founding principles."

D-Day has come for Mrs May to publish the UK's roadmap out of the EU, and into a new relationship with Brussels.

Mrs May needs to devise a solution that allows the UK to diverge from Brussels enough to make Brexit worthwhile.

But at the same time it must keep the two jurisdictions of the Republic and Northern Ireland fully integrated while one is subject to strict EU rules.

Earlier in the week, Mrs May rejected a deal contained in the draft Withdrawal Agreement aimed at doing just that - making her task even harder.

Ahead of today, she was visited in Downing Street by Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council - the EU's most powerful body.

In a speech prior to his trip to Number 10, he laid out the contradictions in Britain's EU policy, where it says it will leave the customs union and single market, yet wants "frictionless trade" in spite of demanding it diverge from EU standards.

"There can be no frictionless trade outside of the customs union and the single market", he said. "Friction is an inevitable side-effect of Brexit by nature."

Meanwhile, Dublin will be watching carefully to see what the British are going to come up with. "Friday is [Mrs May's] opportunity to take the initiative and come up with realistic approaches to the Border," a source said.

"It's going to be very tough - like December all over again."

Mr Tusk pointed to the unresolved Border issue in Ireland as a microcosm of Brexit itself.

"One of the possible negative consequences of this kind of Brexit is a hard Border on the island of Ireland," Mr Tusk said.

He then defended the draft legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement which pointed to a possible solution to the Border issue.

The text was produced by the European Commission, but negotiated by Mrs May in December.

Nonetheless she refused to implement it as it would mean that in the event no different arrangement was agreed, either Northern Ireland or the UK as a whole would remain in the customs union and abide by some single market rules.

Mr Tusk said that "until now, no one has come up with anything wiser than that" to prevent a hard Border re-emerging in Ireland.

But he added that he would ask Mrs May to come up with her alternative.

Once again, extreme brinkmanship and the spectre of the UK crashing out of the EU looms over talks. The next EU summit on March 22 is when member states will discuss the trade negotiating stance.

Irish Independent

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