The EU and UK have failed to move beyond a Brexit impasse after Brussels rejected significant parts of Theresa May’s proposed backstop solution to the Irish border issue.
Little more than 24 hours after the UK’s fresh proposal for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland was published, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier dismissed key elements of the plan.
On Thursday, Brexit Secretary David Davis fought the prime minister for clarification of the time-limited nature of the backstop proposal before its publication, which prompted speculation as to whether he could quit the government over the issue.
But, during a combative appearance at a press conference in Brussels on Friday, Mr Barnier told the UK that putting a limit on the length of a backstop proposal was not acceptable to the EU.
He also poured cold water on Mrs May’s idea of a backstop solution applying to the whole UK, and – in an apparent jibe at Mrs May’s regular refrain that “Brexit means Brexit” – Mr Barnier repeated a number of times: “Backstop means backstop.”
In addition, the European Commission official took aim at the UK’s wider negotiating stance, branding it “paradoxical” and insisting Brussels will not be “intimidated” by a “blame game” for the consequences of Brexit.
The current deadlock on the Irish border stems from Mrs May’s rejection of the EU’s own proposal for a backstop solution earlier this year, which saw Brussels propose Northern Ireland effectively remaining within a customs union with the EU after Brexit.
This is in the event that a wider EU-UK agreement does not prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The prime minister, under pressure from her DUP allies at Westminster, told Brussels its plan was unacceptable as it would threaten the “constitutional integrity” of the UK.
This prompted Thursday’s counter-proposal from Mrs May, which suggests the UK as a whole remaining in a temporary customs arrangement with the EU for a time-limited period.
At Friday’s press conference, Mr Barnier insisted the EU’s proposal for a backstop “cannot be extended to the whole UK” as it was “designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland”.
He said: “What is feasible with a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK.”
Mr Barnier also dismissed the UK’s proposal for a time-limited arrangement, saying: “This has to be a backstop that provides a guarantee under all circumstances… unless and until we find a solution.
“That is why the time-limited terminology doesn’t work for us.”
He added: “The temporary backstop is not in line with what we want or what Ireland or Northern Ireland want or need.”
Claiming the UK’s proposal raised more questions than provided answers, Mr Barnier said: “On the issue of how temporary the backstop will be: backstop means backstop.”
However, after the press conference, Mr Barnier hastily sent a tweet to clarify he was not rejecting the UK’s proposal as a whole.
He posted: “To avoid any confusion between the EU backstop & the UK customs paper: I reiterate that our backstop cannot apply to whole UK. 4 freedoms are indivisible. This is not a rejection of the UK customs paper on which discussions continue.”
In response to Mr Barnier’s comments, a UK government spokesperson reiterated the prime minister’s view that she will “never accept a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK”.
They added: “We are also committed to maintaining the integrity of our own internal market. That position will not change.
“The Commission’s proposals did not achieve this, which is why we have put forward our own backstop solutions for customs. All parties must recall their commitment in the Joint Report to protect the Belfast Agreement in all its parts.
“Michel Barnier has confirmed today that discussions will now continue on our proposal.”
The DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds accused Mr Barnier of “an outrageous attempt to revert to the annexation of Northern Ireland” and claimed the EU official demonstrated “no respect for the principle of consent or the constitutional integrity of the UK”.
He urged Mr Barnier to instead focus on agreeing a EU-UK trade deal.
Labour’s pro-Remain MP Ian Murray, a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for another EU referendum on the final Brexit deal, claimed Mr Barnier’s stance showed Mrs May’s “flimsy Brexit proposal has lasted less than 24 hours”.
Earlier, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had also dismissed Mrs May’s suggestion of a time-limited backstop solution.
He said: “Just putting off a hard border for three years or four years or six years or 20 years isn’t enough – it has to be permanent.”