Michel Barnier warns against time-limited Irish backstop

Michel Barnier has warned Downing Street that the EU leaders have twice rejected putting a time-limit on the Irish backstop after Theresa May suggested this would be her goal when she returns to Brussels for fresh talks.

In comments that appear to put a wrecking ball to the prime minister’s strategy, the EU’s chief negotiator insisted that the withdrawal agreement in all its facets was the “the only possible option” for Britain as it leaves.

He also reiterated his claim that changes to the Irish backstop, which would keep the UK in a customs union in order to avoid a hard border, was not the key to getting the Brexit deal through parliament.

Barnier has been seeking in recent days to push Downing Street in the direction of tinkering with the political declaration on future trade and security in order to win round Labour MPs, in particular, who want a closer relationship with the EU.

That 26-page document is not legally binding, unlike the 585-page withdrawal agreement, but it sets out the parameters for the future deal.

“The question of limiting the backstop in time has already been discussed twice by European leaders”, Barnier told Le Monde, Rzeczpospolita and Luxemburger Wort. “This is the only possible option because an insurance is of no use if it is time limited.

“We cannot tie the backstop to a time limit”, he said. “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. 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.”

Barnier added: “Looking at it objectively, I have the impression that the backstop is not the central issue. Ultimately, the debate in Britain is about what the future of the UK will look like. I believe that we can overcome the current difficulties when we discuss that issue together.”

In her statement to the Commons on Monday, May said that she would seek further concessions from Brussels having acknowledged that a large number of Tory and Democratic Unionist Party MPs “fear that we could be trapped in it”.

On Tuesday, Andrew Murrison, a Conservative MP, and Brexiter, resubmitted a “sunset clause” amendment in the Commons, which offers support for May’s deal if the backstop can be time limited to the end of 2021.

It is believed that the prime minister may now encourage Tory MPs to back the amendment next week if the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, chooses to put it to a vote, and then return to Brussels with “proof” of what is needed to get the deal through, should it pass.

But Barnier explicitly suggests in his interview published on Wednesday that he believes the solution lies in May ditching her red lines.

“If the UK government wants to be more ambitious in its future relationship which is not part of the withdrawal agreement, we can do so, and then come to an agreement on the entire package”, he said. “That would make the question of the backstop less prominent.”

“Things could start moving rapidly”, Barnier added. “This depends on the future relationship, like I already said. We are ready to be more ambitious if the British decide to shift their red lines, for example by remaining in a customs union, or participating in the single market. I believe there is a readiness in London for that.”

As the former chancellor, George Osborne, voiced his view that the UK will need to delay its withdrawal from the EU on 29 March, Barnier also warned that there would be conditions attached by the EU.

“If Britain asks for an extension, it has to be approved by EU leaders”, he said. “They will only agree if three questions are answered: first and second, why and how long? And third, will not that be a problem for holding the EU elections in May? I have no clear legal answer to the third question yet. It is important that the EU’s democratic processes are not disturbed by this, however.

“The first two questions are complex and interconnected: it needs a stable majority in London for all laws related to Brexit that need to be adopted. This will need time”, he said.

He also doubled down on the claims made by the European commission’s chief spokesman on Tuesday that a hard border on the island of Ireland would be inevitable in the event of a no deal.

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, had talked down the possibility following the comments, claiming that a bilateral arrangement would be found with the UK to avoid such a situation.

But Barnier told the newspapers: “There will be checks in case of a no-deal Brexit. We will do everything possible to enforce them unobtrusively. However, that will not be possible with everything. How should we control animals crossing the border? There will have to be checks. Again, the problem arose from Brexit and we expect the UK to take responsibility.”