The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator has revealed the EU is “ready to improve” its Irish border proposal – in an apparent climb down from Brussels’ previous hardline stance on the issue.
Speaking following the General Affairs Council on Article 50, the French negotiator claimed October will be the “moment of truth” for Brexit negotiations adding: “We are now on the home straight”.
Mr Barnier insisted that there would be no hard border in Ireland, claiming that any future deal will see a “set of technical checks and controls”.
He said: “Of course, we have to make headway decisively on the Irish question. The proposal for the backstop on Ireland and Northern Ireland has been on the table since February.
“It is an insurance policy to avoid a hard-border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, whatever the future relationship may bring.
“It reflects our agreement with the UK on December 17, confirmed by Prime Minister Theresa May in her letter to President Tusk in her letter in March.
“We are ready to improve this proposal. Work on the EU’s side is ongoing. We are clarifying which goods are arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked and where, when and by whom these checks could be performed.
“We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border at the company premises or in the markets.
“We need to de-dramatise the checks that are needed. These checks are caused by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, its single market and the customs union.
“What we need in the Withdrawal Agreement, is a legally operational backstop which fully respects the territorial integrity of the UK.
“This backstop will only apply until a better solution is found in the context of our future relationship.”
Michel Barnier later added: “We are working to improve our proposal. You have got to remember that the problem in Ireland, in the light of the long and positive history of the Good Friday Agreement, and the cooperation of both sides and the Common Travel Area.
“The problem is created here in particular for goods, by Brexit. I note Theresa May’s commitment last December as she confirmed in March to find a solution.
“I am attempting to display in concrete terms as I did with the Ministers and as I will to the leaders. What we are talking about here is not a land border, not a sea border, it’s a set of technical checks and controls, just about all of which can not be put other than in a physical place in Northern Ireland. It will not be in any case take the form of a border.”
Mr Barnier also claimed that October was a “moment of truth” in Brexit negotiations.
He said: “The European Council in October will be the moment of truth. It is there that we shall see whether the agreement we are hoping for is within our grasp.”
The Irish border issue has been a major sticking point in Brexit negotiations, with both sides insisting there will be no return of a hard-border.
Mr Barnier speech comes ahead of Wednesday’s informal gathering in Salzburg where Theresa May will attempt to make a direct pitch to fellow leaders to back her Chequers deal.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said it was time for the compromises made by the UK to be “matched on the EU side”.