The prime minister hoped that her White Paper would allow the country to maintain frictionless trade with the EU after Brexit is delivered, but the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has questioned some of the proposals in the newly-published blueprint, including their incompatibility with the bloc’s basic principles.
“There are some elements [of the white paper] which do seem to contradict the guidelines of the EU council, the heads of government and state, namely the indivisibility of the four freedoms and the integrity of the single market. There is not a lot of justification for the EU running the risk of weakening the single market,” Barnier said.
At the same time, Barnier stated that May’s proposal for customs would likely lead to more red tape, warning that “Brexit cannot be and will not be a justification for creating more bureaucracy.”
The Brexit negotiator then insisted that May should go with the EU’s “backstop” plan that would keep Northern Ireland in the single market for goods if the UK did not want to crash out with no deal.
"This requires a legally operative backstop, an all-weather insurance policy… All 27 member-states insist on this," he said, adding that the UK was invited to Brussels next week to negotiate on the issue of the Irish border.
His comments came shortly after May delivered a speech in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, saying she accepted that a hard Irish border was “almost inconceivable,” but once again rejected the bloc’s “backstop” solution as “unworkable.”
"The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country' customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British prime minister could ever accept. As they made clear this week, it is not something the House of Commons will accept either. It is now for the EU to respond, not simply to fall back on previous positions which have already been proven unworkable but to evolve their position in kind," she said.
Last week, the British government published a White Paper on Brexit, aimed at creating a UK-EU free trade area, based on a “common rulebook” that will see both parties play along the same standards on goods and which would spare the need for customs and regulatory border checks. According to May’s plan, any Brexit agreement would have to provide frictionless trade across the Northern Irish border.
The UK is set to leave the EU in March 2019, but an October deadline to finalize the details of the country's divorce from the bloc and a transition period loom.