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EU won’t accept May’s plan to break Brexit deadlock, says Verhofstadt

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Guy Verhofstadt arrives at Downing Stree for talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May in September (Getty)

European Parliament Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt has rejected Theresa May’s proposals to get a Brexit deal over the line, saying they breach her commitments over the Irish border.

The prime minister set out a four point plan in Parliament on Monday designed to “break the impasse” in negotiations caused by a disagreement over the backstop solution to avoiding a hard border in Ireland.

She told MPs that a UK-wide customs union with the EU or an extension of the implementation period would be acceptable – but only if the UK “could not be kept in either arrangement indefinitely.”

That was immediately rejected by Verhofstadt, who restated the EU’s long standing position that any backstop must function “unless and until” a permanent solution is in place.

And, speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he suggested that UK is now rowing back on the commitment to the backstop made by May in December.

“Everybody thought, and we thought, that there was a previous commitment to have such a backstop.

“[Now] our British counterparts have said that there has to be time limited. But we all know that a time limited backstop is not a backstop. That is not the definition of a backstop is that it’s not time limited.”

May told MPs that the Withdrawal Agreement was 95% complete and said the difficulties over the backstop should not be allowed to scupper a deal.

“Let us remember that all of these steps are about insurance policies that no-one in the UK or the EU wants or expects to use,” she said.

“So we cannot let this become the barrier to reaching the future partnership we all want to see.”

Verhofstadt, who said he believes a deal is actually 90% complete, agreed “a lot has been achieved” in recent weeks, citing resolutions to issues over Gibraltar and Cyprus.

MORE: Barnier warns Brexit deal could still be sunk by Irish border issue

But he insisted that the EU won’t blink over the backstop at the final moment.

“The European Parliament and the EU 27 have been clear on this from the start: without a real backstop for us we don’t see a possibility to have a withdrawal agreement,” he told a meeting of the parliament’s constitutional affairs committee.

“And the fact that we are very close to a deal doesn’t actually change anything in this regard…

“…90% is fantastic. I never got 90% at school, I have to tell you. But it’s clear that for us there is only a viable Withdrawal Agreement if there’s 100% and what is still missing is this important issue on the backstop.”

Despite the disagreement, the coordinator of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group said he remained optimistic.

Verhofstadt told MEPs: “The chief negotiator of the EU, Michel barrier, nevertheless remains confident we can make progress in the coming weeks and that there is also more time needed to do so…

“…I’m personally still of the opinion that it’s possible to find this agreement as it is I think not in the interest of the EU and certainly not of the UK to fall into a no deal scenario.”

The Belgian liberal MEP, who is meeting Home Secretary Sajid Javid regularly, said he is also pushing for improvements on citizens’ rights after Brexit and may bring forward a resolution on the issue in the coming weeks.

He declared himself “unhappy” with an expectation that EU citizens who were living in the UK before Brexit will have to pay to gain “settled status”.

“It’s not their choice that there is a Brexit so we don’t see how this is justified how these citizens should be charged,” he said.

On UK citizens living in the EU, he said he wanted to ensure they would be able to move to other EU27 countries after Brexit.