EU’s Barnier casts doubt over breakthrough on Irish ‘backstop’

FILE PHOTO: European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addresses the plenary of the European Parliament on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union during a debate on Brexit at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, September 18, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The European Union’s Brexit negotiator on Monday cast doubt over whether Britain and the bloc could achieve a breakthrough over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request to remove the Irish “backstop” from a divorce deal.

“We want to put an end to the current uncertainty,” Michel Barnier told a news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who said Germany still believed an orderly Brexit is possible.

Barnier added: “The new UK government wants us to get rid of this solution, the so-called (Irish border) backstop. I am sure you understand this is unacceptable. My mandate is clear: safeguarding peace and stability in Ireland and protecting the integrity of the single market.

“Based on current UK thinking it is difficult to see how we can arrive at a legally operative solution which fulfils all the objectives of the backstop. It is in a very sensitive and difficult phase.”

The Irish “backstop”, part of the Withdrawal Agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck in November, is the key sticking point in efforts to agree an orderly British exit from the EU.

New Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that to reach a new withdrawal deal, the backstop would have to be struck out.

Under the mechanism, the United Kingdom would remain in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” alternative arrangements are found to avoid a hard border.

Asked whether digital technologies could help do away avoid the backstop, Barnier said he was ready to look immediately at alternative arrangements for the Irish border “to see how we could find decentralised or virtual solutions.”

“Objectively, there are possibilities,” he said, but added: “I don’t know how to inspect a cow with virtual methods.”

Maas added: “I have never believed that digitalisation can solve all problems.