The fact of the UK’s presentation last week of a paper on a temporary customs arrangement, which it sees as relevant to aspects of the island of Ireland backstop, was a welcome, though incomplete, step forward. After its publication last week, Michel Barnier while also welcoming this step, raised questions and concerns about the proposal. The absence of anything on regulatory alignment is clearly a major gap – though the UK has acknowledged that this aspect needs to be negotiated – as is the suggestion that the arrangement should be time-limited, though it is welcome that the date of end-2021 is aspirational. The Commission, in its further analysis of the paper, has identified numerous issues related to the proposal’s legal and technical viability, and to its compatibility with the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union. It is the Commission which is the Union’s negotiator with the British Government on these issues.
The Government’s focus remains on the outcome we need to see, of which a key element is ensuring the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. It is welcome that the UK’s commitment to this is reaffirmed in its proposal , and that the commitments and guarantees provided by the UK in the joint progress report of December 2017 and repeated by Prime Minister May in her letter to President Tusk in March have been reiterated.
While our preference is still for an overall EU-UK relationship which would resolve all issues, it remains essential that a backstop is agreed which provides certainty that in any circumstances, and no matter what the outcome of the negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship, a hard border will be avoided. We must have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments made on Ireland and Northern Ireland. This certainty requires agreement on the Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement.
I therefore very much hope that there will now be intense engagement between the British Government and the Commission over the next two weeks before the European Council on 28/29 June. As we have repeatedly stated, substantial progress is required by then.