European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday that there are “problematic points” in Britain’s new proposed Brexit withdrawal deal.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier gave a similarly guarded welcome to the plan as he arrived at the European Parliament to brief its Brexit steering group.
“There is progress, but to be frank a lot of work still needs to be done,” Barnier said.
Juncker highlighted concerns about London’s proposed customs regime aimed at avoiding checks on the border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
But he recognised “positive advances” in the British offer during a phone call with Johnson, telling him that EU negotiators would now “examine the legal text objectively”.
EU working for a deal
The proposal is Britain’s suggestion for how to do away with the so-called “Irish backstop”, which Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May agreed to but which the British parliament rejected.
“President Juncker welcomed Prime Minister Johnson’s determination to advance the talks ahead of the October European Council and make progress towards a deal,” Juncker’s office said in a statement.
“He acknowledged the positive advances, notably with regards to the full regulatory alignment for all goods and the control of goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.”
The backstop agreed by May would have kept Britain temporarily aligned to EU customs rules, but it has been rejected by British MPs three times.
Under the new proposal, Northern Ireland would follow EU regulations and standards for all goods, including food and agricultural products, but would leave the bloc’s customs zone to stick with the rest of the UK.
But the commission — which has consistently insisted the backstop is needed to protect both the balance of peace in Northern Ireland and the integrity of the EU single market — still has reservations.
Barnier said a no-deal Brexit “will never be the choice of the EU, never” and stated: “We will continue to work to reach a deal.”
‘Legally operational solution’ sought
The commission statement following the Juncker-Johnson conversation said the EU chief “also noted that there are still some problematic points that will need further work in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop.”
It added: “Another concern that needs to be addressed are the substantive customs rules.”
Johnson’s plan allows a new Northern Irish assembly to decide whether to extend this arrangement once “every four years”, putting a potential time limit on the plan that the EU has previously rejected.
Juncker reiterated the EU stance that any replacement for the backstop must achieve the same ends.
“He also stressed that we must have a legally operational solution that meets all the objectives of the backstop: preventing a hard border, preserving North-South cooperation and the all-island economy, and protecting the EU’s Single Market and Ireland’s place in it,” the statement said.
EU and British negotiators will meet for further talks in the coming days, the commission said, adding that the European Parliament and European Council — which groups member states — would be informed “every step of the way”.
The commission also stressed that Juncker would consult Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar “and listen carefully to his views”.