Ir­ish bor­der prob­lem Diplo­mats as­ton­ished at Raab’s op­ti­mism

The Guardian - - NATIONAL | POLITICS - Daniel Bof­fey Brus­sels

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

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