EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier refuses to back down on Brexit backstop

Angus Walker

Former ITV News Correspondent

Michel Barnier has defended the inclusion of a backstop. Credit: AP

With the Prime Minister still insisting that she can go back to the EU and get Ireland and the other 26 members states to bend on the backstop then Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit chief negotiator, was getting his retaliation in first.

In an interview with the Luxembourg Times today he underlined, again, the opposition to any form of time limit on the backstop.

He told them: "The backstop is like an insurance. It is not there to be used. And if so, only provisionally. However, we cannot tie the backstop to a time limit."

"Why not?", Mr Barnier is questioned.

"Imagine if your home’s insurance was limited to five years and you’d have a problem after six years... That's difficult to justify", he replied.

"It's similar with the backstop. That is why it is tied to an event: as soon as there is an agreement between the EU and the UK that makes an internal border unnecessary, it will be obsolete.

"Let me remind you that we have negotiated the elements of the backstop with the British government and have integrated their wishes into it."

Two things become quickly clear when speaking to other EU politicians, officials and diplomats in Brussels this week.

  • Extending the Article 50 period will not be popular with the EU, not as straightforward as many might think.

  • The level of frustration with the UK parliament’s apparent inability to find a clear way forward has increased since November when the draft Withdrawal Agreement was agreed on.

Daily protests continue in London with just two months before the UK leaves the EU. Credit: PA

One veteran French MEP, Alain Lamassourre, says the idea the EU can negotiate with the UK parliament - in the case MPs take control away from the PM - is “a joke” and rejects the idea of extending Article 50 and delaying Brexit.

His message to “those poor Brits” is “we’re not going to give you more time”.

That view is fairly consistent with what I hear from many other sources in Brussels.

Delaying Brexit would only be looked on kindly if there was a concrete plan from the UK government.

For example, a general election or a second referendum.

EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said a hard border was obvious in event of a no-deal. Credit: AP

Yesterday, the EU Commission midday briefing hit the headlines (it's not often you can say that) after the spokesman said it “was pretty obvious” that in the event of a no-deal outcome then there would be a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Now that was interpreted by some as a deliberate attempt to put pressure on Dublin to bend on the backstop.

Others thought it was simply a slip, the spokesman unable to stop himself following the logic to the "obvious" conclusion.

Ireland has always maintained that it will not allow a hard border to reemerge on the island of Ireland, hence the backstop itself.

The next test for Theresa May's Brexit deal will be on 29 January. Credit: PA

Today, the spokesman was asked if he wanted to elaborate on what he said yesterday, indeed he did... sounding somewhat chastened he now says the EU is determined, deal or no-deal, to avoid a hard border, that has not changed, he insisted. (Where else have we heard “nothing has changed”?)

He also added: “We will also remind the UK government of its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement.”

“Ireland and EU have responsibilities to protect the single market... this is why the Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only possible deal and will not be opened for renegotiations”.

Back on piste. Interestingly, at the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee yesterday, Guy Verhofstadt, the parliament’s Brexit coordinator was asked by MEPs who has the responsibility for policing a hard border in NI in event of no-deal.

“It is not the EU leaving the UK", he said, adding: “No sorry, it is a consequence of the decision that they (the UK) have taken and it is their responsibility”.

That’s jumping ahead somewhat, but you can only imagine the rows that would cause.