Irish border problem Diplomats astonished at Raab’s optimism
Dominic Raab has surprised EU officials and diplomats by claiming the Brexit talks were “closing in” on a solution to the Irish border problem.
In an article on Thursday in which he had threatened to withhold the UK’s £39bn divorce bill, the Brexit secretary wrote that he was looking forward to continuing discussions with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, the following day.
In reality, the two had a call that lasted about 30 minutes yesterday, sources said. EU diplomats expressed astonishment at the sunny outlook offered by the British cabinet minister over the state of the negotiations.
In a statement issued after the call, Raab said: “While there remain some substantive differences we need to resolve, it is clear our teams are closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues in the withdrawal agreement.”
EU diplomats said that in fact there was a complete impasse on the most difficult issue of finding a backstop solution to ensure there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland.
The UK has rejected the EU’s proposal in effect to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market after Brexit, but had not yet delivered on Theresa May’s promise to offer a workable alternative, Brussels sources said.
In response to Raab’s comments, one senior diplomat said he hoped they were a sign that the UK was coming round to the proposal to “dedramatise” the EU’s backstop idea. “But that is not what Barnier is signalling to me,” the diplomat added.
Barnier wants both sides to illustrate to opponents of the backstop just how few checks in the Irish Sea there would be, owing to the relatively low level of trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A second EU diplomat told the Guardian: “In reality this is a matter of who blinks first. And we don’t think it is going to be the EU.” The source added: “Nothing is going to happen until after the Tory party conference at their end.”
A third said of Raab’s comments: “On the contrary, my understanding is that the UK is refusing to discuss details of how the backstop could function. The EU will continue insisting on that.”
Raab suggested in his statement that the highest talks would be put on hold for a week, while EU leaders meet in Salzburg, Austria, for a summit.
Theresa May is due to present her thoughts on the state of the talks over dinner on Thursday evening before the EU leaders discuss the outstanding issues over lunch the following day.
“We agreed to review the state of play in the negotiations following the informal meeting,” Raab said, “and we reiterated our willingness to devote the necessary time and energy to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion.”
Both Barnier and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, have dismissed the central planks of May’s Chequers proposals. These were a common rule book on goods, and a customs arrangement that would allow the UK to enjoy frictionless imports and exports and an independent trade policy.
Michel Barnier and Dominic Raab spoke for only 30 minutes yesterday