Chief negotiator says EU ready to improve proposal, but will not accept British ideas for compromise
Michel Barnier with Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney. Coveney said he got a full update on backstop developments. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
Michel Barnier has rebuffed British calls for the European Union to change its stance on the contested issue of the Irish border, as he said a “moment of truth” was fast approaching on a Brexit deal.
The EU’s chief negotiator said the bloc was ready “to improve” its proposal on avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, but stopped short of accepting British ideas for compromise, after the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, called on the EU to show flexibility.
“The European Council in October will be the moment of truth, it is the moment when we shall see if we have an agreement,” Barnier said.
The Irish border has emerged as the biggest stumbling block to the Brexit deal that Theresa May hopes to strike with the EU this autumn. While the EU and UK have agreed there should be no hard border to prevent any return to violence, they are deadlocked over how to manage what will become a 310-mile frontier between the UK and EU.
Both sides have proposed fallback plans, known as backstops, that would kick into place if trade talks fail to settle the question. The EU’s involves Northern Ireland following EU law on customs and goods, a plan May has said no British prime minister could ever accept.
Barnier said the EU was working to improve its proposal, adding that the problem had been caused by “the UK’s decision to leave the EU, its single market and the customs union”. Seeking to counter British criticism that the EU plan eroded UK sovereignty, he said: “What we talking about here is not a land border, not a sea border, it is a set of technical checks and controls. We respect the territorial integrity of the UK and we respect the conditional order of the UK.”
Barnier was speaking after a 90-minute meeting with the EU’s 27 European affairs ministers at a summit in Brussels. Many countries intervened in the debate to stress the importance of reaching a deal and its timing.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, got a full update from Barnier on the backstop developments and later described his meeting as “excellent”. The Irish cabinet had earlier agreed to hire 451 new staff for border duties out of a total of 1,077 needed for ports and airports.
Ireland is among several EU countries concerned that having an emergency summit in November will take the pressure of the British in the coming weeks.
At a summit in Salzburg, May will appeal to EU leaders on Wednesday night to soften their stance over UK access to the single market and customs union.
Preparing the ground, Raab called on the EU to match the UK’s flexibility in an interview with continental European papers. “The ball is a little bit in the other court now,” he said, echoing language used by May last October.
The exchange came as Brussels prepares to step up its legal action against the UK in a case of alleged customs fraud. The European commission has accused HM Revenues and Customs of negligence in controls that enabled Chinese fraudsters to evade duties, causing a €2.7bn (£2.4bn) loss to the EU budget.
The commission will announce the next step in the process on Wednesday, the final stage before it can take the government to the European court of justice.
Brussels launched the action in March, and British officials see the timing of the latest move – on the eve of the Salzburg summit - as provocative. “I can only speculate on the reasons, but it seems pretty obvious what is going on,” a No 10 insider said.
A government spokesman said: “The UK does not accept liability for the alleged losses or recognise the estimate of alleged duty evaded. We take customs fraud very seriously and we continue to evolve our response as new threats emerge.”
The alleged fraud has raised tensions between the EU and UK, contributing to mistrust about British officials’ ability to collect duties on behalf of the bloc, as proposed by the government in its unprecedented customs partnership.