By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday called on the European Union to strike a new deal to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland and demanded Brussels quickly respond to her plan to avoid a damaging no-deal Brexit.
May's political future has been uncertain since her 'white paper' policy document on post-Brexit relations with the EU triggered resignations from the Cabinet and anger within her Conservative Party.
In a speech to politicians and business leaders in Belfast, May sought to turn the focus onto the EU and the fate of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, one of the main stumbling blocks in the negotiations.
May said the return of a hard border once Britain leaves the bloc would be "almost inconceivable", but dismissed the EU's current plan to avoid it as unacceptable.
Instead, May said the EU must engage with her 'white paper' released earlier this month, which proposes negotiating the closest possible links for trade in goods to protect businesses and to fulfill a commitment to avoid having infrastructure on the border.
It is "now for the EU to respond. Not simply to fall back onto previous positions which have already been proven unworkable. But to evolve their position in kind," told the audience at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.
In a swift response, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc was open to alternative proposals on the border, but insisted it be a legally watertight agreement as part of the withdrawal treaty. Barnier said he had invited British negotiators to discuss the backstop next week.
May had flown to Northern Ireland to see up close the troubled British region's frontier with EU-member Ireland.
The 500-kilometre (300 mile) border has been largely invisible since army checkpoints were taken down after a 1998 peace deal ended three decades of violence between the region's pro-British majority and an Irish nationalist minority. Over 3,600 died.
May in December agreed in principle to a binding "backstop" to ensure a soft border irrespective of future EU-UK ties, but later balked at an EU proposal to achieve this by treating Northern Ireland as a separate customs area to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Her Conservative Party and Democratic Unionist Party allies in parliament have angrily objected to arrangements that would create any kind of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
"The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal 'third country' customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept," May said.
The Irish government, which has said it has concerns about May's white paper, on Friday said a backstop was essential, but could be renegotiated so long as it was better than the current deal and legally operable.
"While she doesn't agree with the EU's wording in terms of the proposed Irish backstop to date, that doesn't mean that Britain isn't committed to a backstop. We just haven't finalised the wording of it yet," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told RTE radio. He was a meeting of EU foreign ministers, where he said the response to May's white paper was "lukewarm."
The EU has warned business to get ready for Britain crashing out of the bloc without agreed terms, although officials and diplomats still think some kind of deal is more likely than not, if only because the cost for both sides would be so high.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Toby Chopra)