UK rejects EU’s draft option for N Ireland

London: Prime Minister Theresa May warned on Wednesday that Britain would never allow the EU to “undermine” its constitutional integrity, as she rejected a draft divorce treaty unveiled by the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
“The draft legal text will, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea and no UK prime minister could ever agree to it,” May told parliament.
Barnier said the draft treaty on the future relationship included a “backstop solution” under which British-ruled Northern Ireland would remain in “full alignment” with Ireland, which is a member of the bloc’s single market and customs union.
He denied the backstop will “call into question the constitutional or institutional order of the UK”, but May said she would reject such a plan when she outlines Britain’s negotiating demands on Friday.
Referring to the European Commission chief, May said she will “be making it crystal clear to President (Jean-Claude) Juncker and others that we would never” agree to a customs divergence with Northern Ireland.
Both the EU and Britain have vowed that there should be no “hard” border between Northern Ireland and Ireland following Brexit in order to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
May on Wednesday repeated that her government was “committed to ensuring that we see no hard border”, but an earlier letter she received from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson exposed the bind she is in.
“The particular problem around the Irish border is being used politically to drive the whole Brexit argument and effectively to try and frustrate Brexit,” said Johnson, a chief campaigner to leave the EU.
“It is wrong to see the task as maintaining ‘no border’”, he said in the leaked letter, adding the government should instead “stop this border becoming significantly harder”.
Barnier called on London to “pick up the pace” of talks if it wants a deal this year on a draft treaty published on Wednesday, which also provoked anger in Northern Ireland.
“If we wish to make a success of these negotiations… we must pick up the pace,” he told reporters after the European Commission endorsed a first public draft for a withdrawal treaty which both sides hope can be agreed within about eight months.
The draft treaty was based on interim accords reached in December and on EU positions which Britain has yet to accept.
In particular, a protocol on how to avoid a disruptive “hard border” on the island of Ireland foresaw effectively keeping Northern Ireland within the EU structures and rules.
Barnier stressed that this was in line with a “backstop” agreed with Prime Minister Theresa May in December and could be superseded if Britain put forward a detailed alternative solution.
Northern Irish Unionists on whom May relies for her slim parliamentary majority criticised the proposal as it could create new divisions between the British province and the rest of the United Kingdom.
The draft treaty sees a joint EU-UK committee overseeing the arrangements but the European Court of Justice remaining the ultimate authority to resolve disputes.
Barnier said he would engage in a new round of negotiations next week and would also meet leaders of Northern Ireland early in the week.
He stressed that there remain “significant divergences” in talks on whether Britain might get a transition period after it leaves the EU 13 months from now. — Agencies