Irish backstop must be part of Brexit deal, says EU Parliament chief

European Parliament President David Sassoli gives a press conference on Brexit and other issues at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 12 September 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

There will be no Brexit deal without an Irish backstop, European Parliament President David Sassoli said on Thursday (12 September). However, the EU is willing to revive a proposal that would keep only Northern Ireland in the bloc’s orbit to maintain a seamless border to Ireland, and was open to giving the UK another extension, he said.

EU leaders will reconvene in Brussels on 16-17 October for the next European Council summit where it will be the last chance for London to strike a deal in time for an 31 October exit.

The European Parliament has to approve any Brexit deal agreed between the EU and Britain for it to take effect.

The backstop, the key obstacle to a deal, aims to ensure no customs or regulatory controls are imposed on the border between the British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

Johnson opposes the backstop arrangement agreed by his predecessor Theresa May, fearing it will trap Britain in a permanent customs union with the EU, and an ‘all-Ireland’ arrangement on the grounds that it would split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

“We want an agreement but we are aware that an agreement without a backstop wouldn’t work,” Sassoli told a news conference after attending a briefing meeting with Michel Barnier, who leads the European Commission’s Brexit Task Force. “There can’t be an agreement without a backstop. There won’t be one.”

“I would like to stress this point: the United Kingdom hasn’t provided any alternatives … anything that has been workable,” said Sassoli, who hails from Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party.

Sassoli said any departure without a deal would only ever be Britain’s choice and that the bloc was ready to analyse any concrete proposals from London on replacing the backstop.

“We are willing to go back to the original EU proposal which is that a backstop will only be added for Northern Ireland.”

He spoke a day after Britain’s new Brexit negotiator, David Frost, visited Brussels for a third round of talks with the European Commission in two weeks. However, although Johnson and his ministers continue to state publicly that talks are ongoing, EU officials say that no formal proposals have been made, a point that was underlined by Sassoli.

“Up to now – and I would like to stress this point – the United Kingdom hasn’t proposed any alternatives and anything that has been legally credible,” he said.

More than three years since Britons voted narrowly to leave the EU and with just seven weeks to go, the British government and parliament are locked in conflict over Brexit, with possible outcomes ranging from leaving without a deal to holding another referendum.

UK lawmakers last week passed a bill requiring Johnson to request a three month extension to the Brexit talks ahead of the October summit.

The Johnson government prorogued the UK Parliament earlier this week amid chaotic scenes in the House of Commons. The decision, which sees Parliament suspended for five weeks until October 14 when the Queen will announce a new legislative programme, has been challenged in the courts, with MPs complaining that they will be unable to scrutinise the government’s Brexit plans.

Although courts in England and Northern Ireland have deemed the prorogation to be lawful, the Scottish Court of Session ruled it unlawful. The UK’s Supreme Court will make a final, binding decision on the prorogation following hearings starting next Tuesday.

MEPs have drafted a motion on Brexit to be debated and voted on in the European Parliament’s next Strasbourg plenary session to “approve the work that has been done so far, stress the unity on the EU and institution side.”

The draft resolution suggests that MEPs are open to an extension, though Sassoli said that this could only be if the UK held an election or referendum. It also states that if there is a no deal departure that will be entirely the responsibility of the United Kingdom, language which can be interpreted as a retort to UK politicians who have accused the EU of being intransigent and unwilling to compromise in the negotiations.

The Parliament chief added that the EU would also be prepared to re-open the Political Declaration which accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement and sets out the parameters of future EU-UK relations “making it into a legally binding document”.

However, he expressed scepticism that the talks were moving forward following Barnier’s assessment of the Brexit talks.

“Unfortunately the signals that we’re getting aren’t indicating that there’s any initiative that could reopen the negotiations, and we’re unhappy about that.”

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