A deal between Britain and the EU on the Irish border is not “close” despite hopes of a breakthrough, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has warned.

Michel Barnier said there was “still a real point of divergence” on the Northern Ireland issue, after Theresa May called for a “review” mechanism to be attached to the EU’s planned backstop that would guarantee no hard border.

The warning came as Theresa May told her Cabinet that a deal ”would not be done at any cost”.

The Northern Ireland border issue is the main final stumbling block to a withdrawal agreement – though the delay resolving it also mean negotiators have not worked out even an outline of a trade deal either.

Ireland’s government on Monday publicly rejected a proposal by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab for Britain to be able to unilaterally pull out of the Irish ‘backstop’ regime after three months, suggesting such a policy would not be “worth the paper it was printed on”.

Mr Barnier told Belgian broadcaster RTBF on Tuesday: “For now, we are still negotiating and I am not, as I am speaking to you this morning, able to tell you that we are close to reaching an agreement, since there is still a real point of divergence on the way of guaranteeing peace in Ireland, that there are no borders in Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the single market.”

The delay, which has is pushing talks even further beyond the original October deadline, means it is increasingly unlikely a special Brexit summit will be held in November to finalise a deal. The EU has said December is too late to reach an agreement, though some in Brussels suspect the deadline could slip yet further.

Tory eurosceptics, including in Theresa May’s own Cabinet, are concerned that plans to keep the UK inside a customs union with the EU temporarily to help prevent a hard border could see Britain never fully leave the bloc’s orbit.

The UK had itself requested that the so-called “backstop” apply to the whole UK rather than just Northern Ireland, as originally proposed by the EU – in order to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. But Brexiteers are now worried about the implications of the policy, and want some kind of time-limit. Mr Barnier has said a time-limited backstop would be “no backstop at all”. 

A Downing Street spokesperson said on Tuesday that Cabinet ministers needed more time to consider ways to ensure Britain could not be bound to the EU by the backstop indefinitely.

The spokesperson indicated that a meeting of the body on Tuesday had discussed such options, but that ministers failed to reach a final conclusion.

A customs union would still not prevent all border checks, the EU has said, because of the continued need for health and regulatory checks on animal products. Michel Barnier has said these would increase ten-fold after exit between Great Britain and Ireland, if the UK leaves the single market.

Giving an account of the Cabinet meeting, the spokesperson added:  “The Prime Minister said she was confident of reaching a deal. She said that, while the UK should aim to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible, this would not be done at any cost.

“The Prime Minister said that, once agreement was reached on a withdrawal agreement, it remains the case that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and it will be subject to securing an acceptable full future framework.”

Mr Barnier is in Finland this week where he will meet senior Finnish politicians and attend the congress of the European People's Party, the EU's main centre-right group. The EPP will pick its lead candidate for the European Parliament elections at the gathering, with a strong possibility that they could become the next European Commission president.



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