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Barnier vows backstop will not be weakened by EU’s assurances over Brexit deal

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier visits the Irish border (Getty)

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has vowed that any assurances over the Brexit deal given to prime minister Theresa May won’t weaken the Irish border backstop, according to the leader of Sinn Fein.

Mary Lou McDonald met with Barnier in Brussels on Wednesday as the EU plans an intervention over the backstop designed to help May get the deal through the Commons.

May is seeking assurances and clarifications to address concerns among MPs that it will see the UK trapped in the EU’s customs union.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has said the bloc is “happy” to give assurances and the prime minister is due to discuss them with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker this week.

But, at a press conference at the European parliament following her meeting with Barnier, McDonald said she had been given her own assurances over the backstop.

Answering a question from Yahoo Finance UK, she said: “We have been assured that whatever words of comfort, whatever words of clarification are given to assist the political process, that there will be no question of undermining or compromising the legal text, the legal protections, the legal protocol that contains the protections for Ireland.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (right) arrives at the European commission HQ for talks with Michel Barnier (Getty)

“We have no detail on the precise nature of any clarification or words of comfort or how they be expressed. What we have absolute clarity on is that whatever they may be, they will not under any circumstance represent a reopening of the negotiation — that’s done — nor will they in any way undermine or compromise the legal protections achieved for Ireland.”

McDonald’s statement is consistent with the message given by France’s Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, who said on Tuesday that “there’s nothing more [the EU] can do” than restate its position that the backstop would only be used as a last resort and until a new trade deal came into force.

The meeting came as the UK government published plans for the Northern Ireland assembly to have a say on whether to enter the backstop or extend the transition period should a trade deal not be ready.

READ MORE: ‘There is nothing more we can do’ – EU struggling to help Theresa May win Brexit vote

If the backstop did come into force, the proposal says Stormont would have to give its approval to any new EU rules emerging during that period. Cabinet office minister David Lidington said it amounted to a “veto.”

However, it has failed to convince the DUP to backstop the Brexit deal. Nigel Dodds, the party’s deputy leader, described it as “cosmetic and meaningless.”

McDonald told journalists in Brussels: “It seems to us that Mrs May with the document published today attempts to placate the DUP. Her efforts have failed because they are not reasoned or reasonable on these points and they have acted against the express wishes of the majority of the people in the north of Ireland.”

She described the withdrawal agreement set to be voted on by MPs next Tuesday as the “least worst option.”

READ MORE: Juncker won’t renegotiate Brexit deal in phone call with May this week