UK offered no alternatives to backstop, say EU officials
The U.K. government has so far offered no alternatives to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop and has opened up three new areas, including on trade and defense, that it wants to renegotiate, the European Commission told a meeting of EU27 officials in Brussels Tuesday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made expunging the backstop — the mechanism designed to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland — a central demand of his proposed renegotiation of the Brexit deal agreed by his predecessor Theresa May that failed on three occasions to win the backing of MPs.
During a closed-door meeting, EU Brexit officials and diplomats were told by a representative of the European Commission — which runs the negotiations with the U.K. — that there had been several phone calls with representatives of the U.K. government during the summer and one meeting on August 27.
A U.K. official declined to comment on what would be discussed during talks this week.
In a statement to the Commons Tuesday, Johnson told MPs that it is "wrong" to suggest that talks are not moving. "There's a lot to do but we are making progress," he said.
For the last three weeks, the U.K. has promised fresh proposals on the backstop, but each week nothing had been offered, the Commission official said.
But the Commission official told the Council of the EU's Ad Hoc Working Party on Article 50 meeting in Brussels that it is wrong to say that there has been a change of tone. The official told the meeting that it had "informed the U.K. that nothing had changed," according to an official who was present, and to one diplomat who confirmed that account.
For the last three weeks, the U.K. has promised fresh proposals on the backstop, but each week nothing has been offered, the Commission official said.
According to three EU27 officials at the meeting, they were also told by the Commission representative that the U.K. is now seeking changes in three other areas of the Political Declaration, which along with the Withdrawal Agreement, are the two parts of May's Brexit deal: (The EU has often repeated that is open to changes to the former but not the latter.) The requested changes are:
— The U.K. would like the future relationship document to refer to a "best in class Free Trade Agreement," which one diplomat explained would mean “no tariffs and no quotas."
— Johnson's government wants to change the dispute settlement mechanism that would resolve disagreements over how the agreement is interpreted in future.
— It also wants to change the provisions on defense, which officials have interpreted as a request to allow greater divergence from the EU.
However the Commission noted that, particularly on the last two points, London didn't provide any further clarification, officials said.