Why is Michel Barnier being messed about over the backstop and the border?
On Tuesday he said this to the Commons Brexit Select Committee.
I am very concerned about Ireland. We need to find a solution that avoids the return of a hard border and that remains today the main obstacle on our road to an agreement between the British and ourselves.
On the ground, ladies and gentlemen, it is impossible—this is nothing new—to distinguish between customs checks and other regulatory checks. The two kinds of checks are intrinsically linked in the technical physical organisation of what happens when things are checked on that border for the single market. That is why the British solutions mooted, such as a temporary customs arrangement, which suggests such a distinction between customs checks and regulatory checks, would turn out to be impossible, technically speaking, for us to implement.
Quite apart from the protocol, as proposed in the Withdrawal Agreement, which we published for the first time in February, I observe that apart from that, until now the British Government has not presented any proposal that would work in practice and be operational to carry out these checks, but it is a very important point and I say this in full awareness of my responsibilities. I am convinced that it is possible to carry out the kind of checks we need without creating a physical frontier within your country and in respect of the constitutional order of the United Kingdom. We are talking about checks on goods, after all. Many of these checks are already carried out today between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
We are open to discussing other backstops, so we can discuss this text, we can make changes to it. We are open, but whatever happens, there has to be a backstop. We need that. It has to be an operational backstop in legal terms. Brexit without a backstop would create a problem for Northern Ireland, and the inhabitants of the island of Ireland we think are entitled to some certainty regarding the conditions for future co-operation between the two countries.
We are ready to simplify these checks, to have them carried out at a number of different places and have checks, thanks to technical means, which could take different forms. But that effort to de-dramatise the situation should be made by both sides, which is why I say Ireland remains the crucial issue if we are to get an agreement, but if there is no operational backstop on Ireland, there will not be an agreement.
Let me say the following as a politician, not as a Brussels Eurocrat. I know your country very well and I know Ireland very well. I respect your country. We need the necessary controls but we don’t want in any way to undermine the constitutional structure of the United Kingdom. We need to look at the individual controls that are necessary.
I discussed this with Dominic Raab last week. We need to see how and when and where these controls would take place. They could be dispersed. They could take place in different places, on board vessels, in ports outside Ireland, they could be done using technological means, they could be dispersed, as I said, or simplified in technological terms. Just to make that absolutely clear, we are not talking about a border. We are talking about controls. Some of these controls are already carried out in Northern Ireland on products coming from Great Britain. For example, plant-health checks, veterinary checks, animal checks. These checks are already carried out in Northern Ireland on products coming from Great Britain, from the mainland. I said this to Mr Dodds on one occasion. He recognised that it was indeed the case, and that is the spirit. That is why we want to de-dramatise this need for controls between our two markets.
That was on Monday. By Friday according to the Guardian Michel Barnier was “disappointed and irritated” by Brexit Secretary Dominic aab’s alleged failure this week to live up to a promise to provide data on the trade flows between the UK and Northern Ireland, which had been requested as part of an attempt to take the drama out of the Irish border issue.
Barnier requested the trade data as he believes it will show that very few goods going between the mainland and Northern Ireland go directly to Belfast. The European commission’s officials want to show that the number of checks needed in the Irish Sea would therefore be small and that talk of a border in the Irish Sea is overblown.
Not according to the NI Statistics Agency. Couldn’t Barnier get someone to look them up?
In 2016, NI Sales to GB were worth 1.3 times more than all exports and 3.7 times more than NI exports to Ireland.
Ireland remains NI’s single largest export market of £11.4bn. Sales to GB are not “exports”, which are defined as sales outside the UK.
Barnier’s real complaint is of course is that the UK government are still ducking the problem of the backstop.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London