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'Single market is not a supermarket,' says Barnier in blow to May's Brexit plan

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (Getty)

Michel Barnier has sent a strong signal that the EU will not accept a major part of the Brexit plan being proposed by Theresa May at a crunch Cabinet summit.

Speaking as ministers arrived at Chequers, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator ruled out agreement on any proposal that would “damage” or “unravel” the single market.

He said: “The single market is at the heart of the European project. It is a source of opportunities and prosperity. But it is not, and it should never be, only a big supermarket.”

His comments deal a blow to a big part of the prime minister’s proposals, even if Barnier stressed that he wouldn’t comment on the plan until it was published out of “respect” for May.

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He promised to examine the long-awaited white paper “carefully, objectively, precisely” next week and said he was willing to be flexible if the UK’s red lines adapt.

But his words today leave little hope that May’s plan to request access to the single market for goods without accepting freedom of movement – will be accepted in Brussels.

That won’t bother hard Brexiteers such as backbench Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg who saw it as a significant weakening of the government’s position.

Of the element of the plan preferred by Brexiteers – the so-called called maximum facilitation element – Barnier said technological solutions to minimising trade barriers could be “useful” but were “not enough.”

Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, where ministers are debating plans for Brexit (Reuters)

Barnier was speaking at a think-tank event being held at the Irish representation in Brussels.

An agreement on a backstop solution to avoiding a hard border in Ireland remains the most difficult outstanding issue in negotiations.

The EU negotiator today pushed again his proposal for a backstop which see Northern Ireland effectively remain within the EU’s customs union and single market.

The prime minister and her DUP partners say that is unacceptable because it would create an internal border in the UK’s single market.

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Barnier insisted today that would not be the case and called for the issue to be “de-dramatised.”

“Once again, let me be clear, we are not asking for any new borders between Northern Ireland the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.

Barnier again stressed that time was running out in order to conclude a Brexit deal – the deadline is the October European Council.

He said he was committed to securing a deal but said: “Brexit is a lose, lose game. There is no added value to Brexit.”