BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A Brexit deal is “within reach” next week, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday, even as he rammed home his insistence that Britain must accept possible checks on trade between its mainland and Northern Ireland.
“An agreement is within reach for Oct. 17, next Wednesday, if we succeed to the end of this negotiation now,” Barnier said in a speech to business leaders at the European Parliament.
EU leaders are due to meet for dinner in Brussels next Wednesday and hope to agree a withdrawal treaty with Britain that Barnier said was 80-85 percent ready but on which obstacles remain, notably on how to keep the new EU-UK land border with Northern Ireland from reviving conflict in the British province.
The European Union is doing all it can to ensure checks on goods moving across Northern Ireland’s borders would be made “in the least intrusive way possible”, for example on ferries, at ports or in factories of origin, he said. But veterinary and food security controls will have to take place at the border.
Barnier said Brexit would trigger the need for customs, VAT and compliance checks with EU standards between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event that a planned “backstop” were triggered because a future EU-UK trade deal was not sufficient in itself to ensure the land frontier was not a “hard border”.
For customs and VAT, Barnier said, “we propose using the existing customs procedures to avoid doing checks at the transit points”. He said customs declarations could be done online in advance.
“The only visible systematic checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would involve scanning the bar codes on lorries or containers, which should be done on ferries or in transit ports.”
For industrial goods, he said it could be done by “market surveil;ance authorities”, on-site in the companies. But he said checks of animals and animal-derived products would still have to take place on the border and cover all of that trade.
“Our challenge is to make sure that these procedures are as easy as possible and not burdensome, particularly for small and medium businness,” he said in a speech that ended with a standing ovation.
The British government and leading politicians in Northern Ireland insist they will not agree to a withdrawal treaty that foresees the possibility of Northern Ireland being kept inside the EU’s economic area while the British mainland is not.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Janet Lawrence