Brexit: Barnier admits he will ‘use Ireland’ in negotiations
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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to reveal a new Brexit deal with the EU on Monday that will overturn Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements. A bitter dispute over the country’s trading regime emerged when the UK left the single market and customs union two years ago — but unearthed footage shows that this might have been the bloc’s plan all along.
While Mr Sunak plans to reach an agreement with EU President Ursula von der Leyen, he is facing major opposition from the Eurosceptics among his own ranks, including figures like Jacbo Rees-Mogg.
The Prime Minister must also convince Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of the deal. The DUP has stopped Stormont, the country’s devolved government, from continuing with its work because of the dispute.
Ms von der Leyen is travelling to Windsor on Monday to hold talks with Mr Sunak, with the aim of finalising the final aspect of the Brexit deal.
Reports suggest the proposed agreements run to more than 100 pages.
A European figure who became synonymous with the continent’s Brexit dealings is Michel Barnier, formerly the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
The Frenchman has since stepped down and written a book about his experience of the two years he spent going back and forth with Britain.
In 2019, the BBC followed senior individuals on both sides for its documentary, Brexit: Behind Closed Doors.
It was here that Mr Barnier was filmed at a meeting with senior EU politicians, speaking about the topic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the potential trade border that would be erected on the island.
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Cameras caught him talking of “using” Ireland as a chip in the negotiations.
He said: “We are at a key point. In fact, we were ready on Friday to make this agreement but it stuck on the backstop.
“For me, there is also a strategic and tactical reason, which is to use Ireland for the future negotiations. Isolating Ireland, and not closing this point, to leave it open for the next two or three years.
“And in that case, we will face clearly permanent pressure on the negotiations about trade, the single market because of Ireland. And we have to be careful what the reaction will be of the European Council and the member states.”
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The Irish backstop was developed by former Prime Minister Theresa May and her government, along with the European Commission in December 2017. Its goal was to prevent a physical border on the island of Ireland and so quell any possible unionist and separatist tensions.
It is currently one of if not the only technical hitch included in Brexit that has yet to be solved.
If all goes well, Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen are expected to hold a press conference on Monday afternoon before he heads to the House of Commons for a statement on the agreement.
One EU official told the Financial Times: “For us, the deal is basically there,” while a UK official added: “It feels like we’re basically there now.”
The proposed deal will not only set back in motion the devolved government in Northern Ireland — Stormont collapsed in 2017 and has been in a deep freeze ever since — but will also look to restore the UK’s damaged relationship with the EU and the US.
President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly voiced concerns about the matter not being resolved quickly enough. The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement will be marked on April 10.
Many have complained about the current setup of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic and the rest of the UK since Brexit.
While pro-Britain parties object to how the protocol treats the country differently from the rest of the UK, businesses have drawn attention to the extra paperwork, costs, and general increase in bureaucracy.
The deal, it is hoped, will reduce checks on goods shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It will also look to address concerns among Conservative ranks over the role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the protocol.
The agreement is expected to reduce the influence of the court in Northern Ireland but keep it in place as the arbiter of EU law.
The deal will also focus on the DUP’s concern that by remaining in the EU single market for goods after Brexit, Northern Ireland will end up falling to EU rules.
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