Frosty reception for Theresa May's Brexit backstop plan in Brussels

Theresa May's latest Brexit proposals received a frosty reception in Brussels, with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier raising objections to her plan for a time-limited customs backstop covering the whole UK.

And a day after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was recorded saying the UK was ready to take a more combative approach to negotiations, Mr Barnier said he would not be intimidated by Britons seeking to blame Brussels for their inability to secure the Brexit they want.

Mr Barnier said it would not be feasible to extend the European Commission's backstop plan - under which Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU's customs territory after Brexit - to include the whole of the UK.

And he said Mrs May's plans for a temporary backstop were not in line with the needs of Brussels, Dublin or Northern Ireland for stability, turning one of her own slogans against her to declare: "Backstop means backstop."

But within minutes of concluding a press conference in Brussels, Mr Barnier took to Twitter to correct the impression that he was rejecting the UK proposals out of hand, stressing that they would be the subject of discussions in the coming days and weeks.

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Downing Street issued a statement restating Mrs May's firm opposition to the proposals put forward by the Commission, which she said would create a customs border down the Irish Sea. Number 10 pointedly noted that both the UK and EU were committed to preserving the Good Friday peace accord.

The Democratic Unionist Party accused Mr Barnier of lacking respect for the constitutional integrity of the UK, accusing him of "an outrageous attempt to revert to the annexation of Northern Ireland".

And former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: "Barnier is trying to break up the United Kingdom. He's not carrying out these negotiations in good faith and it's time for Mrs May to stand up to him."

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Mrs May's customs backstop proposal was thrashed out in an intensive series of meetings with senior ministers on Thursday, amid rumours that Brexit Secretary David Davis might resign if it left the UK in the customs union on an open-ended basis.

The plan envisages the whole of the UK remaining part of key elements of the customs union until a better arrangement is in place - something which the Government expects can be achieved by the end of 2021.

Mrs May believes this would keep the Irish border open, while avoiding creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

But Mr Barnier said the proposal raised a number of relevant and difficult issues.

"Our backstop can't be extended to the whole UK," he said. "Why? Because it has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland."

Under the EU proposal "Northern Ireland would form part of our customs territory", said Mr Barnier, adding: "What is feasible with a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK."

In his subsequent tweet, the EU negotiator appeared to concede that Mrs May's proposal did not amount to a simple extension of the Commission scheme to cover the whole UK.

"To avoid any confusion between the EU backstop & the UK customs paper: I reiterate that our backstop cannot apply to whole UK," he wrote. "This is not a rejection of the UK customs paper on which discussions continue."

Mr Barnier said Mrs May's insistence that the arrangement must be time-limited meant that it could not be regarded as a true backstop, providing a fallback option if the UK's preferred permanent solution could not be agreed.

"Backstop means backstop," he said. "The temporary backstop is not in line with what we want or what Ireland and Northern Ireland want and need."

He questioned whether a temporary backstop could "secure the absence of a hard border in all circumstances" and said it might mean businesses and public authorities having to cope with several changes.

The May proposals also failed to address the need for full regulatory alignment on either side of the border, he added.

Barnier is trying to break up the United Kingdom. He's not carrying out these negotiations in good faith and it's time for Mrs May to stand up to him.

-- Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) June 8, 2018

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said it was clear Mrs May's proposals were unworkable, while Best For Britain chief executive Eloise Todd said the backstop plan was "dead on arrival".

And Labour MP Ian Murray, a supporter of the People's Vote campaign for a second referendum, said: "Theresa May's flimsy Brexit proposal has lasted less than 24 hours.

"As predicted, her offer of half-baked fudge on the so-called 'backstop' option has been wholly rejected by the EU."

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