Michel Barnier hints at EU climbdown in bid to break Northern Ireland border deadlock
Brussels is ready to water down its stance on the Irish border in an attempt to secure a Brexit deal with the UK, Michel Barnier has said.
In a boost for Theresa May, the EU's chief negotiator said the bloc was "ready to improve the text of our proposal" over how to maintain an open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
However, he also warned the Government that the EU was not willing to compromise on the single market and the customs union in order to strike a withdrawal agreement.
Mrs May has already rejected the EU's plans for a "backstop" proposal which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the customs union after Brexit if no other solution to the border problem can be found.
In an article published in 20 European newspapers, Mr Barnier said: "We need to make sure that Brexit does not create a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and that the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland, will be protected.
"Today, the co-operation and exchanges between Ireland and Northern Ireland occur within the common framework of the EU. Since we will not know what the future relationship will bring by Autumn 2018, we need to have a "backstop" solution in the Withdrawal Agreement.
"The UK agrees with this, and both the EU and the UK have said that a better solution in the future relationship could replace the backstop. What the EU has proposed is that Northern Ireland remains in a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU. We are ready to improve the text of our proposal with the UK."
Mr Barnier's comments mark a change of tone from last week, when he rejected the central plank of the UK's Brexit blueprint.
But in his newspaper article, he again reaffirmed that the EU will not sign up to anything which threatens the integrity of the single market and customs union.
He said: "The UK knows well the benefits of the single market. It has contributed to shaping our rules over the last 45 years. And yet, some UK proposals would undermine our single market, which is one of the EU’s biggest achievements.
"The UK wants to keep free movement of goods between us, but not of people and services. And it proposes to apply EU customs rules without being part of the EU’s legal order. Thus, the UK wants to take back sovereignty and control of its own laws, which we respect, but it cannot ask the EU to lose control of its borders and laws."
Mr Barnier's intervention came as Mrs May prepares to meet French President Emmanuel Macron for talks on Brexit at Fort de Brégançon, his summer residence on the Côte d’Azur.