BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s executive said on Wednesday the bloc would do its utmost to avoid extensive border controls between EU member state Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland regardless of how Brexit goes, a spokesman said.
The Irish border issue remains the biggest obstacle to a divorce deal being agreed between Britain and the EU in the countdown to Brexit, which is scheduled for March 29.
“The EU is determined to do all it can - deal or no deal- to avoid a hard border in Ireland,” the Commission’s chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, told a news conference.
On Tuesday Schinas said a no-deal Brexit would automatically erect a border on the island of Ireland, putting Dublin on the spot as to what preparations it was making for a scenario all sides say they want to avoid.
An Irish government spokesman reacted on Tuesday by saying Dublin would not accept a hard border - which is seen as possibly endangering peace on the island - and was not planning for one.
On Wednesday, Schinas reaffirmed EU solidarity with Dublin but also noted that the Irish-Northern Irish border would become an external border of the EU after Brexit.
That meant policing the frontier properly if there is no alternative arrangements with Britain in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
“Ireland and the EU have responsibilities as regards the protection of the single market and the customs union,” Schinas said.
Speaking in the Polish city of Krakow on Wednesday, the Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans reiterated that the EU could not renegotiate the so-called ‘backstop’ agreement in the withdrawal deal negotiated by Brussels and London.
The ‘backstop’ is an insurance policy designed to ensure there is no return to customs and other extensive border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit.
The British parliament resoundingly rejected the withdrawal deal last week mainly due to concerns over the ‘backstop’, fearing it would commit the UK to EU customs rules after Brexit.
May is now trying to secure further EU concessions on the backstop to overcome opposition in the UK parliament.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Gareth Jones