Michel Barnier is refusing to back down on erecting a border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and has publicly asked the British government for data to prove that the checks on goods flowing within the territory of the UK would be few in number.
The EU’s chief negotiator, who has been strident on the issue during the behind-the-scenes negotiations, made public his request for the information as he warned he needed an agreement on Northern Ireland and other outstanding withdrawal issues “by November at the latest”.
Brussels wants to show that the flow of goods from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland is minimal, and that most of it comes via the Republic of Ireland.
UK negotiators have insisted it is not the number of checks that matters, but the principle of not having border checks within the sovereign territory of the UK.
The UK’s Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, told a joint press conference in Brussels that the wishes of all communities in Northern Ireland needed to be respected, in an indication that the British government will not allow checks unacceptable to the Democratic Unionist party.
However, Barnier said a solution was “essential to conclude the negotiations”. He said: “With no backstop there will be no agreement.”
The EU and the UK have agreed that there will be a backstop solution for avoiding a hard border to snap into place should there not be a trade deal or bespoke technological solution that can satisfy that requirement, after the 21 month transition period that will follow Brexit day.
Barnier said the issue was a matter of some urgency, and revealed he had asked Raab to provide data on how the necessary controls and checks take place.
Barnier added he was determined to reach an agreement ahead of the European council meeting in October, but both sides have now conceded that there is flexibility for further negotiations, with an extraordinary summit expected in November.
Standing alongside Raab, Barnier said: “If you take account of the date chosen by the United Kingdom to leave, that’s 29 March which is in UK law, and you simply count backwards the time that you need for ratification, about three months here or there, then it takes you to November at the latest. It’s as simple as that.”
Raab said he wanted to continue “accelerating and intensifying” negotiations, adding: “I am stubbornly optimistic that a deal is within our reach.” Theresa May has repeatedly said she will refuse to contemplate any backstop deal that involves the “dislocation” of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
One idea floated in reports in Dublin last week was to have checks in British ports on all goods going to Northern Ireland. This would mean any goods moving to the Republic of Ireland via Northern Ireland would already have been checked “off shore” and so would not need to be checked on the Irish border.
This would not cover goods produced in Northern Ireland but the EU has offered a special deal for the region for this type of freight.
However this involves Northern Ireland being in regulatory alignment with the Republic, which would be unacceptable to the DUP if there is not also regulatory alignment with the UK.
Sources in Dublin said they had been aware of briefings by the British through the summer that the Irish would be persuaded to compromise in order to clinch a deal that would protect trade to the UK. They said Barnier’s “firm” line on the border challenge reinforced the belief that the EU was not divided.
“It is a real mindset [for the British] that they see this as the EU v the UK, that the EU has as much to lose; that the German car manufacturers will force a deal, but it hasn’t worked,” said the source.
“Barnier was pretty firm about the backstop. We have always said the text proposed in February/March can be changed but the agreement reached in December [of no hard border] must be respected.”
Raab said the government remained committed to finding a solution in Northern Ireland, but the latest meetings with Barnier on the issue have been notable for their frostiness, sources have said.
Raab said: “The solutions must be workable, they’ve got to be workable for the communities living in Northern Ireland and living in the Republic of Ireland.”
The Brexit secretary also urged Barnier to engage on the substance of the Chequers proposals, and be more ambitious.
He said: “We must remember beyond Brussels and the Westminster village, that actually there are real people affected by the trade negotiations.”
Barnier called for the UK to engage on the issue of geographical indications, the current EU protections for goods such as Parma ham, Roquefort and Parmesan cheese.
He said: “On geographical indications – 3,000 geographical indications in the 28 countries of the union – I have again expressed my concern.
“The position of the European Union is clear: Brexit must not lead to a loss of existing intellectual property rights.”
The UK government is insisting that the issue can only be discussed if other trade matters are on the table, in an attempt to draw the EU into substantial discussions that move on from a simple free trade agreement, which would see the erection of border checks on goods moving across the English channel.
The UK also believes that the EU is rethinking its approach on access to the Galileo satellite programme, after comments from Barnier on Friday suggested he was open to negotiation.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, has pledged that Britain will build its own satellite unless Brussels softens its plan to block UK commercial and military access to the design and development of the secure military-grade signal.
However, on Friday Barnier said: “I recall that Galileo’s civil and commercial signal will obviously still be accessible to the United Kingdom and its businesses.
“Our offer also includes access to the PRS [Public Regulated Service] signal, on the basis of an agreement negotiated by the United Kingdom, as is the case today with other allies. I think here of the United States or Norway.”