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Verhofstadt gives UK two-month ultimatum over Irish border issue

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Guy Verhofstadt updating MEPs on Brexit negotiations today (European Parliament)

The UK government has been told to find a solution to the Irish border issue within two months or risk a back stop which would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union becoming a reality.

The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator said today that an agreement on the Irish border issue should be reached by the next European Council meeting on June 28.

Guy Verhofstadt said the proposals put forward by the UK so far were not satisfactory and dismissed a suggestion by UK Brexit Secretary David Davis that the issue could be left until October.

“Our hope is that we can find a way forward in June already on this,” he told the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee.

“I have heard that Mr David Davis said maybe October, but I think in October it is late because in October we need to be ready with the whole Withdrawal Agreement – including Ireland, plus already a declaration on a future relationship.

“So, if you look to the agenda the best way forward, is that this problem is solved as fast as possible and ultimately before the June European Council.”

That timeline would give the UK government just eight weeks to reconcile their ambition of avoiding a hard border in Ireland while leaving the EU’s single market and customs union.

The two proposals set out by Theresa May in her Mansion House speech last month were “annihilated” by the EU side in the last round of negotiations, it was reported last week.

The Withdrawal Agreement states that Northern Ireland will remain in the EU’s customs union if the a hard border cannot be avoided through a trade deal that would make customs checks unnecessary.

David Davis told MPs at Westminster today that this option was only a “reserve parachute.”

Brexit Secretary David Davis addressing the UK Parliament’s Brexit committee today (PA Images)

But in Brussels , Mr Verhofstadt said the backstop would become a reality unless another workable solution was found soon.

He said: “People say there is no solution to Ireland – I say there is a solution to Ireland because there is a back stop.

“The reason for the back stop is that if there is no other satisfactory solution that can be found with the UK, or if the UK doesn’t come forward with a convincing solution, then we have the written assurance that the back stop will be put in place and would apply.”

Without an agreement on the Irish border, the European Parliament would veto the entire Withdrawal Agreement, Mr Verhofstadt vowed.

Mairead McGuinness, a vice-chair of the European Parliament from Ireland’s ruling Fine Gael party, said she wanted to avoid a hard border through a deal that allowed frictionless trade rather through than the backstop.

But she added: “I’m anxious about it being left until October. I would prefer that this is done in June.

“The people I represent are also anxious and they deserve better than having to wait many months for some certainty.”

Pro and anti-Brexit MEPs clashed over the idea of a second referendum during the meeting.

Labour MEP Richard Corbett shouted “rubbish” when UKIP leader Gerard Batten predicted Leave would win by an even bigger majority if another poll was held.