EU’s Barnier says will “improve” Irish Brexit border proposal to UK

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier attends an EU's General Affairs Council in Brussels, Belgium, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union is ready to improve its proposal to Britain for an “insurance policy” backstop arrangement on how to manage its Irish border after Brexit, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said on Tuesday.

“We are ready to improve this proposal,” Barnier told reporters after briefing EU ministers on his talks ahead of a summit of EU leaders in Salzburg on Wednesday and Thursday.

“Work on the EU side is ongoing, we are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked. Where, when and by whom these checks could be performed,” he said.

“Most checks can take place away from the border, at company premises, or the market,” Barnier said of customs and regulatory checks on goods that might move from the British mainland to Northern Ireland, which the EU has offered to keep inside the EU economic space after Brexit to avoid border friction.

Aware that British Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out a new “border” between the province and the British mainland, Barnier said he was looking at a broad range of ways in which the EU could be sure that Britain did not use Northern Ireland’s special status to sidestep EU controls on British goods.

Insisting that it was only “an insurance policy” which might never be used if Britain and the EU succeed in negotiating the close trading relationship both sides want, Barnier repeated that he was keen to “de-dramatise” the effects of Britain’s withdrawal from the Union.

But, also conscious of Irish worries about a possible political fudge on the issue, he stressed that the backstop must be “legally operational” and said a summit in Brussels on Oct. 18 would be a “moment of truth” for whether a deal was possible before Britain leaves the EU, deal or no deal, next March.

“It’s then that we shall see whether the agreement we are hoping for is within our grasp,” Barnier added.

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