Blow for Theresa May as EU Brexit chief says UK's backstop proposals 'unworkable'
A senior EU official has branded Theresa May's proposals for maintaining an open Irish border in the absence of a final Brexit deal "unworkable".
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator, spoke out just hours after the Prime Minister sent the document to Brussels.
The so-called "backstop" proposal sets out how the UK would stay in a customs union with the EU until a solution to the Irish border issue is found.
Mrs May was forced to make a last-minute change to the six-page plan after Brexit Secretary David Davis demanded it include a date for when the temporary measures run out.
It now says the Government "expects" the emergency measures to end by the start of 2022, although it stops short of saying they would definitely be over by then.
But in a tweet, Mr Verhofstadt suggested that the document would be rejected by Brussels.
He said: "Difficult to see how UK proposal on customs aspects of IE/NI backstop will deliver a workable solution to avoid a hard border & respect integrity of the SM/CU. A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop, unless the definitive arrangement is the same as the backstop.
The row comes ahead of a crunch EU summit at the end of June at which Britain hopes that an agreement will be reached on the backstop.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, also gave the UK proposal a cool response.
Elsewhere Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this morning that a backstop arrangement could not be time-limited given there needed to be an alternative in place before it could end.
And the country's foreign minister Simon Coveney said following the release of the UK’s plan that reaching agreement on the issue was crucial for Mr Barnier and European leaders to give the nod for talks to progress.
Labour MP Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit Select Committee, said the EU was likely to reject the Government's proposals.
He said: "The Government seems to have conceded that the whole of the UK will, in effect, be staying in a customs union with the EU after the end of the transition period in December 2020 if a future partnership agreement hasn’t been concluded by then. This is a recognition of blunt reality.
"But this backstop contains no proposal on regulatory standards which will also be essential to keep an open border in Northern Ireland. Half a backstop is therefore unlikely to be sufficient to make progress possible at the June European Council.
"On time-limiting the backstop, the proposal makes it clear that it will last as long as it takes to bring in another system. And since ministers can’t say how long that will be, the backstop will be here to stay unless and until it is replaced by other arrangements that can also keep an open border in Northern Ireland."
But DUP MP Nigel Dodds welcomed the document. He said: "The backstop in the technical report issued today applies to the entire United Kingdom. That is positive and a step forward.
"It is another demonstration of the Prime Minister’s commitment to the Union. The previously proposed annexation of Northern Ireland was totally unacceptable.
"We must also remember that the backstop will only be used as a last resort. The focus must now be on getting a new trade deal."