European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sidestepped a request from U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May that the EU help develop a solution to the Northern Ireland border conundrum after Brexit.
“We need to receive specific proposals from the U.K.,” Juncker told a plenary session of the Parliament in Strasbourg during a speech to MEPs, in which he repeated his demand for “clarity” from the British government.
The draft withdrawal agreement text from the European Commission last month presented three options for the Northern Ireland, with a heavy emphasis on the “backstop” proposal for Northern Ireland to effectively stay within the EU customs union.
That was denounced in London as an attempt to annex part of the U.K., and in her Mansion House speech last month, May said that both sides needed to come up with a solution to the border issue together.
“We can’t do it on our own. It is for all of us to work together,” she said.
But running through the three options for Northern Ireland, Juncker — who was flanked by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his former chief of Cabinet Martin Selmayr — said it was up to the U.K. to come up with a workable solution that would avoid the need for a hard border.
“The draft protocol on Ireland should not come as a surprise or a shock it translates last December’s agreement into a legal text,” Juncker said. “For us this is not an Irish issue. This is a European issue.”
That comment elicited repeated shouts of “It’s a British issue sir,” from UKIP member David Coburn.
“As you say it is a European issue,” Juncker fired back.
Referring to May’s speech, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs that it was a “surprising idea” that the EU would allow the U.K. to benefit from convergence in some areas but “open up the possibility of divergence when there is the comparative advantage for it.”
He said the EU’s regulatory model was about more than just rules and regulations: but also entails Europe’s model of social and environmental protections. “Does the U.K. also want to distance itself from this model which they have constructed gradually with us and engage in dumping against us?” he said, referring to the practice of lowering standards in order to gain a competitive advantage.
Switching into English for emphasis and borrowing a phrase from May’s speech, Barnier added: “It’s time to face up to the hard facts.”
German MEP Elmar Brok, speaking for the European People’s Party group said in response to Juncker’s comments, “Brexit is bad for us all. The negotiations are about damage limitation.”
He added that with a potential trade war with the U.S. in the offing, European unity was “a case of survival.”
Delivering a damning verdict on May’s speech, the Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said, “It is mainly repeating the red lines that we know already [for] two years.”
And he turned May’s line that the U.K. could not accept the rights of a Canada-style trade deal with the responsibilities of Norway-style membership of the single market back on her, saying no one in the EU was trying to force a deal on the Britain where they had to accept the worst of all worlds.
“You cannot have the rights of Norway and then the obligations of Canada. That’s also not possible,” Verhofstadt said.
He promoted his proposal that the eventual agreement with the U.K. should take the form of an “association agreement” with the EU to avoid a proliferation of ad hoc bilateral agreements. “I’m quite confident that Britain will see the advantage of such an approach,” he said.
Ending his own speech by slapping the table in front of him, Juncker said: “We need to focus on our European future. Not on the past and not on Brexit.”
MEPs vote on the Parliament’s Brexit resolution Wednesday.