June 7, 2018 / 1:09 PM / 9 months ago

Barnier welcomes UK Irish backstop, sets conditions

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed a new British proposal on Thursday for a backstop plan to avoid a hard border in Ireland - but he stuck by key conditions that have led to a stalemate in talks so far.

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier attends an EU's General Affairs Council in Brussels, Belgium, May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

EU officials were reviewing a British technical note on a temporary customs arrangement, but initial reactions were that London’s request to keep the whole United Kingdom within the EU customs area for a time after Brexit could work under some condition.

However, as Barnier made clear in a tweet, Brussels will not accept any legal time-limit to a deal intended to avoid customs checks and other disruptive facilities on the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

They will also not accept extending an offer to effectively keep Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market in goods to the rest of the United Kingdom, due to the size of the British economy and London’s refusal to accept the basic terms of the single market, including court supervision and free migration.

Barnier tweeted: “I welcome publication of UK proposal on customs aspects of IE/NI backstop.

“We will examine it with 3 questions: is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the SM/CU? Is it an all-weather backstop?”

In other words:

— the EU wants to be sure that the British proposal will actually work to avoid border disruption; in fact, the technical note cites only limited changes to a legal text proposed by Barnier in December and agreed in principle by London

— the EU is willing to let Northern Ireland effectively stay in the single market for goods by maintaining its “regulatory alignment” with the EU; earlier British suggestions that this could be extended to the British mainland to avoid new barriers between it and Northern Ireland are ruled out by the EU as a “backdoor” way to get British goods into the bloc without accepting all the rules of the single market; the British note offers no change to the key Article 3 of the Irish protocol, which refers to a “common regulatory area” for Ireland.

— as for allowing the whole of the UK to effectively remain in the customs area, that will prompt a detailed examination in Brussels of how those customs rules will be enforced

— an “all-weather backstop” means one that will survive any time limits; EU officials note that the only mention of a time limit in the British note is not in any legal text but a line of statement saying that London “expects” a replacement for the backstop temporary deal to be in place by December 2021; as long as London agrees that is an aspiration but that the backstop remains “unless and until” there is a new deal, Brussels could agree.

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr; editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Hugh Lawson

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