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Just months out from Brexit, Barnier warns that a solution to the Irish border issue is still needed

“The solutions [on Ireland] must be workable,” UK negotiator Dominic Raab said today.

THE COMPLEX IRISH border problem could yet scupper a Brexit deal, EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned today after talks with his British counterpart, saying “urgent” work was needed to find a solution.

Avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after the United Kingdom leaves the EU’s single market has become a major obstacle to finding a deal.

After meeting the UK Brexit minister Dominic Raab in Brussels, Barnier hailed progress on some security issues but warned there were still major differences over protected geographical indicators like champagne and stilton – and Ireland.

“There is an urgent need to work on the text of an operational backstop and that’s why I’ve asked Dominic and his team to provide us with the necessary data for technical work, which we need now, on the nature, location and methods of the checks that will be needed,” Barnier said.

This backstop is critical to conclude these negotiations because without a backstop there is no agreement.

The EU proposes that Northern Ireland stay aligned with the remaining 27 bloc members after Brexit as part of a “backstop”, or insurance policy to avoid the reimposition of border checks and a risk to Irish peace gains.

This would mean that Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union and the single market to avoid a hard border returning on the island of Ireland, something Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he’s committed to avoiding.

But the UK has suggested instead that the whole country remain aligned with the EU in certain areas, only until the end of 2021, with UK Prime Minister Theresa May saying that neither she, nor any Prime Minister could accept a border along the Irish Sea.

The EU in turn opposes including the entire UK into the backstop arrangement, viewing it as a way of Britain trying to stay in the single market by stealth.

The two sides have just a few months before an agreement on Britain’s divorce from the European Union – set for 29 March 2019 – must be forged in principle by October or November.

Raab, whose predecessor David Davis resigned in July over differences with Theresa May’s outline of what she wanted from Brexit, said he was “stubbornly optimistic” that a deal could be reached.

“All in all I think the contours of an agreement and a deal on the withdrawal agreement are becoming clearer and clearer, which is a positive,” he said.

“The solutions [on Ireland] must be workable.

They’ve got to be workable for communities in Northern Ireland and living in the Republic of Ireland, the people affected in their daily lives by what Michel and I are negotiating on behalf of the EU and the UK.

France’s Europe Minister cast doubt on May’s blueprint for future trade ties today, warning the current proposal was “not possible”.

Nathalie Loiseau said May’s plan unveiled in July, which envisages the UK leaving the EU’s single market but staying in a free trade area for goods through a customs deal and common rulebook, is unattainable.

© AFP 2018, with reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

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