There will be no renegotiation of the Irish backstop provision in the withdrawal deal agreed with the UK, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said today.
He said the backstop was ‘part and parcel’ of the agreement with the UK and was a realistic solution to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Barnier’s stance reflects the EU’s and is a sharp rebuke to Prime Minister Theresa May after Thursday’s Commons votes.
One key vote gave May a mandate to go back to the EU to seek ‘alternative arrangements’ to the backstop which is opposed by many Brexiteer MPs.
The backstop as it stands would keep the UK inside the EU customs union, with Northern Ireland alone following some rules of the single market.
Opponents fear it could become indefinite and may also threaten the cohesion of the UK.
That opposition was the main reason for the heavy defeat of May’s withdrawal deal in the Commons earlier this month.
But the EU stance threatens an impasse over Brexit and raises the prospect of a no-deal scenario as the clock ticks down to the UK’s departure on March 29.
May will return to Brussels hoping to discuss a number of backstop alternatives with EU leaders.
They include a ‘trusted trader’ system to avoid checks on goods crossing the border, mutual recognition of rules with the EU and the use of technology.
She also wants to agree a time limit on the backstop and a clause allowing the UK to exit unilaterally, both of which have previously been rejected by the EU.
Barnier said: “I will say right here and now – with this withdrawal agreement proposed for ratification – we need this backstop as it is.
“Rejecting the backstop as it stands today boils down to rejecting the solution which has been found with the British, but the problem remains.”
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he believed May had no desire for ‘slipping back to darker times’, but added the backstop was necessary to prevent that.
He said Tuesday’s Commons votes increased the risk of a hard Brexit but he still believed a deal could be agreed between the EU and UK.
Juncker added: “We will work day and night to make it happen, and to ensure we are ready in case it does not.
“We have no desire to use this (backstop) safety net, but no safety net can be truly safe if it can just be removed at any time.”
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the latest Commons vote underlines the need for ‘a backstop which is legally robust and workable in practice.’