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Barnier dismantles UK’s Brexit white paper

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The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator posed a series of questions about Theresa May’s Brexit white paper that all but killed her proposal for a future relationship based on a free-trade area for goods and a new customs agreement, reported Politico (Germany).

As expected, Michel Barnier never said “no” outright and he praised the white paper for providing a basis for continued discussions toward a withdrawal treaty. But he also insisted that the future relationship would be defined by EU red lines that are clearly incompatible with May’s proposal.

Developing the white paper came at considerable cost to May, including the resignation of her own chief negotiator, David Davis, and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Fierce debate continues to swirl in London over the U.K.’s negotiating posture, and Barnier seized on that to suggest the U.K. is still on solid ground.

“As you know this white paper is the result of a very intense internal debate in the United Kingdom, a debate that was necessary, and I think we have all seen that this debate in the U.K. is not over yet,” Barnier said at a news conference after briefing EU27 ministers on the status of the talks during a meeting of the General Affairs Council.

Barnier went to great lengths to avoid saying that the white paper is a nonstarter — a position that EU officials and diplomats have been reluctant to voice aloud for fear of creating further chaos in Britain or even helping topple May’s government. But Barnier’s reiteration of the EU’s commitment to the single market, and the indivisibility of its four freedoms — notably the freedom of movement for workers — effectively rejects the core elements of May’s plan.

“Are these proposals compatible with the principles laid out at the March European Council?” Barnier asked, referring to the negotiating guidelines set for him by EU27 leaders.

Barnier then punched a hole in Britain’s proposal for regulatory alignment only on certain manufactured goods. “The U.K. said it was ready to align with Union standards for goods but only for those controlled at the borders — so it would not be aligned with our agrifood standards likes GMOs, pesticides, since there is no control over whether or not these rules are respected,” Barnier said.

“How are we going to protect European consumers?” Barnier asked.

“Are the proposals of the white paper workable? Or are they applicable without additional complexity or additional bureaucracy? These proposals would consist in applying two tariffs — Union and U.K. This stirs up practical questions: How can customs verify the final destination of goods? Isn’t there a risk of fraud? Brexit can’t be a justification for additional bureaucracy.”

He added, “On customs, there are things I don’t understand, and neither does the Commission. It needs to be workable.”

And perhaps his most fundamental question was: “Are the British proposals in the interests of the EU?”

In an effort to strike a more conciliatory tone, Barnier said there are “several elements” in the white paper that “opened the way to a constructive discussion,” including a free-trade agreement that “should be at the heart of our economic relations.”

He also paid tribute to the U.K’s willingness to provide guarantees that it would protect fundamental rights and its acknowledgement of the European Court of Justice as the “single European arbitrator.”

However, Barnier again stressed that the EU’s top priority is winning agreement from the U.K. on a backstop solution for the Irish border, which is the main stumbling block to completing a formal withdrawal treaty.

However, Barnier was unable to explain why the backstop issue had to be solved before the conclusion of the formal withdrawal agreement, which currently provides for a 21-month transition period in which nothing would change on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Barnier insisted that the backstop is needed “now” and noted that May has twice previously agreed that a backstop for Ireland is necessary. In a speech Friday in Belfast, May said the EU’s own version of the backstop is unworkable and potentially violates the Good Friday Agreement, and called for Brussels to renegotiate it.

Even as he insisted that the backstop be resolved in the withdrawal treaty, Barnier said the issue is open for discussion.

A senior U.K. government official said London is encouraged by Barnier’s comments on the EU’s own backstop proposal, noting what the official called “a hint of movement” by the EU toward redrafting its plan, which May has deemed unacceptable.

Leaving Friday’s General Affairs Council, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, called on May and her government to bring forward their own comprehensive backstop proposal rather than simply criticizing the EU’s version.

“If you reject what the negotiating team on the other side of the table are proposing, well then you need to bring forward a proposal yourself,” Coveney said. “What’s needed now really is a much more comprehensive proposal coming from the British side.”

The response from the U.K. to Barnier’s speech was swift. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the backbench Brexiteer European Research Group, said: “It is a typically bullying response by Mr. Barnier, which confirms people’s view that the EU is not an benign organization and therefore, it is essential to leave.”

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