Could Brexit talks soon be heading for the ‘meltdown’ that Boris Johnson predicted? Michel Barnier’s press conference just now hardly inspires confidence that things are going to plan. The EU’s chief negotiator said that Britain was playing a ‘blame game’ in Brexit talks and that it had to accept the consequences of its decision to leave the EU. He went on to call for the British government to have something of a reality check over the way things were going. Today, that reality check came in the form of his rejection of Britain’s backstop proposal to solve the Irish border problem.
Theresa May had put forward the suggestion that the whole of the UK would remain in the customs union after Britain leaves the EU next March. This would, in effect, act as an extension of the transition period, meaning that the UK could prepare trade deals while the details of Britain’s future customs arrangement with the EU is thrashed out. The only problem? This isn’t going to happen, according to Barnier. He said that while this might be a solution if it were to apply only to Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t work for the whole of the UK because it is too big. Here’s what he said:
‘Our backstop cannot be extended to the whole of the UK? Why? Because it has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland…What is feasible with a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK.’
Of course, you might well say that Barnier pushing back against Britain over Brexit is hardly news. And you would, partly, be right: it is, after all, his job to be difficult, and it can hardly come as a complete surprise to the government that Barnier hasn't completely swallowed their plan. Yet the firmness with which he has ripped up the government’s proposal today still looks troubling. If the UK plan had been accepted, it would have solved one of the big sticking points in these talks. Instead, it is now back to the drawing board.
There is a chance that the EU member states will side with Britain over Barnier at the EU summit later this month. But it would be more of a surprise if that happened than if it didn’t; their track record largely suggests an approach of falling into line with the EU’s chief negotiator. Theresa May’s Brexit troubles, it seems, aren’t going away.