(Bloomberg) -- Brexit talks could yet fail as the two sides grapple with the Irish border issue, Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, said.
Rapid progress is needed on agreeing the scope of rule alignment required to avoid frontier checks after the U.K. exits the bloc, Barnier told reporters in Dundalk, close to the Irish border. He said the process wasn’t motivated by a spirit of “revenge or punishment” but the need to find “technical and practical solutions.” June is a “stepping stone” to reaching a Brexit withdrawal accord, he said.
Standing beside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said, Barnier suggested his role wasn’t to “mediate” between various factions in the U.K. on Brexit, while the Irish leader said the U.K. needs to shift its stance in order to avoid frontier checks.
At present, the only realistic plan on the table for keeping the border invisible after Brexit is the EU’s “backstop” option, which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs union and parts of the single market if needed. That amounts to erecting a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, which the U.K. considers unacceptable.
- Barnier underlined again and again that he isn’t seeking to undermine the constitutional integrity of the U.K., in an effort to ease unionist concerns around the backstop solution. He said with a “constructive attitude” on both sides, he’s confident a deal can be reached.
- Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said, while the solution to the Irish border question doesn’t need to be finalized in June, a failure to make progress would place questions around the likelihood of reaching a withdrawal deal in October or November.
- Both Barnier and Coveney cast doubt on the idea that the “backstop” option that keeps Northern Ireland in a “common regulatory area” with the EU should apply to the whole of the U.K., a notion floated by Britain, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
- Barnier said the solution should be specific to Northern Ireland, and Coveney said it shouldn’t set a “precedent” for the rest of the bloc.
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