EU answers Theresa May′s request for Brexit help | News | DW | 08.03.2019
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EU answers Theresa May's request for Brexit help

After Theresa May again called for Brexit concessions, the EU's negotiator offered to let the UK unilaterally leave the bloc's customs union. The offer was, however, quickly called "neither realistic nor sensible."

The European Union should make concessions in Brexit talks to convince British lawmakers to back a controversial exit deal next week, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday. The call came as Brussels and London struggle to reach an agreement to avoid a potentially damaging "no-deal" Brexit at the end of March.

In response, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the EU was ready to offer Britain a unilateral exit from the bloc's customs union while keeping other elements of the Irish backstop. 

Read more: Brexit endgame: What you need to know

What Barnier said:

  • In a series of tweets, Barnier wrote that the "EU commits to give UK the option to exit the Single Customs Territory unilaterally, while the other elements of the backstop must be maintained to avoid a hard border."
  • "The UK will not be forced into a customs union against its will," he also wrote in the Twitter thread.
  • Barnier added that the UK would have to honor a promise to maintain a border free of controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which in earlier talks led to suggestions of a border in the Irish Sea.

  • He also said the EU would keep working to help ensure the "UK leaves the EU with an agreement."

What May said:

  • The UK government is still committed to seeking legal changes to the Brexit deal to ensure a controversial provision known as the "Irish backstop" is temporary.
  • London is also committed to ensuring an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • "Just as MPs will face a big choice next week, the EU has to make a choice, too. We are both participants in this process. It is in the European interest for the UK to leave with a deal."
  • "We are working with them but the decisions that the European Union makes over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the [parliamentary] vote."
  • "So let's not hold back. Let's do what is necessary for MPs to back the deal on Tuesday." 

How others saw the day's events

Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the Northern Irish DUP, which supports May's government, called Barnier's proposal "neither realistic nor sensible" and added that the suggestion shows "a lack of understanding about the divisions in Northern Ireland." He added that a Brexit deal could still be possible if there was "less intransigence in Brussels."

British Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said it was not the time to rehash old arguments. "The UK has put forward clear new proposals. We now need to agree a balanced solution that can work for both sides," he said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the British, not the EU, had to compromise, adding that the decision to leave the bloc had been "a problem of their own creation."

Antonio Tajani, the head of the European Parliament, told German media that the withdrawal agreement, especially on the Northern Ireland issue, could not be changed. However, he left open the possibility of extending the Brexit deadline beyond March 29 to a "maximum of several weeks." To postpone the Brexit date, he said Britain would need to provide a reason such as using the extra time to hold elections or a second referendum.

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What is the Irish backstop?

It's an insurance policy to keep an open border between Northern Ireland, a UK province, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. It would keep the UK in a "single customs territory" with the EU and would come into force if both sides fail to agree on a new trade agreement. 

Read more: The draft Brexit deal — what you need to know

Why is the backstop so controversial?

Many pro-Brexit lawmakers in the UK worry the backstop could force the UK to indefinitely align its rules with EU regulations. This would preclude the UK from signing independent trade deals with non-EU countries, a power many Brexit supporters have demanded.

To win the support of Brexit supporters, May wants legally binding assurances from the EU that the backstop is temporary. But Brussels has repeatedly rejected that proposal in support of the Republic of Ireland, which wants an open border regardless of whether both sides can agree on a post-Brexit trade deal.

EU deadline passes

The EU had demanded that the UK rework its proposals for changing the backstop by Friday. The UK's attorney general was in Brussels earlier this week to discuss a compromise, but came home empty-handed.

Read more: EU Customs Union, Single Market, Brexit — What you need to know

Fears of a no-deal Brexit

The UK is set to leave the EU, deal or no deal, on March 29. Businesses across the continent fear a no-deal Brexit would severely disrupt UK-EU trade. British lawmakers could avoid that outcome next week. If Parliament rejects May's deal at a vote on March 12, another vote will be held on delaying Brexit.

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amp/cmk (Reuters, AFP)

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