Barnier vows to ‘improve’ EU Irish border plan in final push for Brexit deal

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Michel Barnier at a meeting of EU ministers about Brexit on Tuesday (Reuters)

EU Brexit chief Michel Barnier has vowed to “improve” the bloc’s plan to prevent a hard border in Ireland in a bid to make a last-ditch breakthrough in negotiations.

After talks with EU ministers in Brussels on Tuesday, Barnier told the press his team are working on new proposals designed to “de-dramatise” an issue which risks causing a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

“We are ready to improve this proposal,” he said. “Work on the EU side is ongoing.”

It came after the UK government called for the EU to show flexibility in Brexit talks.

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Arriving at the meeting with Barier, Brexit minister Lord Callanan said: “The UK has compromised and it’s now up to the EU to reciprocate. If we’re to get a deal there has to be compromises from both sides.”

The EU and UK are both committed to finding a ‘backstop’ solution preventing the re-emergence of a hard border in Ireland, but they can’t agree on what form it should take.

The impasse has held-up Brexit negotiations for so long that EU leaders are set to push the deadline for a deal back from October to November.

Brexit minister Lord Callanan at Tuesday’s meeting of EU ministers (Getty)

“A little over 80%” of the Withdrawal Agreement has been signed-off by both sides, according to Austrian minister Gernot Blumel, who spoke alongside Barnier.

That means next to no progress has been since June when Yahoo Finance UK revealed the Withdrawal Agreement was 80% complete.

Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney called for an “intensification” in talks on the Irish border after meeting Barnier in Brussels on Tuesday.

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“What we haven’t got is any text from the British side in terms of their proposals to actually resolve the impasse that is there at the moment,” he said.

Barnier said his team are using trade data provided by the UK government to establish “where, when and by whom” checks on goods being imported to the EU could be performed.

“We can clarify that most checks can take place away from the border,” he said. “At company premises or in the markets. We need to de-dramatise the checks that are needed.”

The UK government says the EU’s current ‘backstop’ policy would challenge the integrity of the UK by creating a border in the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and mainland UK.

Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney in conversation with EU Brexit chief Michel Barnier at Tuesday’s meeting (Getty)

Hitting back at that criticism on Tuesday, he said: “What we’re talking about is not a border: not a land border, not a sea border. It’s a set of technical checks and controls.”

He also stressed that the checks were “caused by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, its single market and the customs union.”

EU leaders are set to move the deadline for a Brexit deal back to November in a bid to give Barnier and his British counterpart, Dominic Raab, more time to resolve outstanding issues.

But Barnier said he still saw the original deadline – the European Council of October 18 – as the “moment of truth” for a Brexit deal.

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“It’s then that we shall see whether the agreement we are hoping for is within our grasp,” he said.

Ireland’s Coveney also stressed his opposition to the drift in the timetable for a Brexit deal.

He said: “We want to be in a position where EU leaders can be making real decisions in October.

“Some people seem to be suggesting that we can just move past the leaders’ meeting in October and into November; that is not the view of the task force and it’s not the view or Ireland.”

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