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Michel Barnier: Operational Brexit solution needed for Northern Ireland

DUNDALK, Ireland — The EUs chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday demanded a “clear, operational solution for Ireland and Northern Ireland,” and said he would not attempt to broker the U.K.s internal disagreements about Brexit.

“Let me recall my role is to negotiate on behalf of the EU27,” Barnier said, in an apparent reference to reports of deepening rancor within U.K. Prime Minister Theresa Mays government over maintaining a customs union with the EU.

“I have no intention of mediating between the different positions of Brexit [in the U.K. government],” Barnier said.

Barnier spoke at a news conference in Dundalk, where Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar repeated his recent warning that the Brexit talks would be paralyzed if there is no solution for the Northern Ireland border by the EU leaders summit in late June. U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis last week called the June date an “artificial deadline.” Disagreement over the timing is emerging as a major point of contention in the talks.

“There has to be real and substantial progress, meaningful progress, before the June European Council, which is just two months away,” Varadkar said Monday.

Responding to a reporters question, Barnier declined to elaborate on the potential consequences if the EU and the U.K. fail to reach an agreement on Ireland by the June summit. But Barnier warned pointedly that the U.K. would only secure a transition period to soften its departure from the EU if there is agreement on a formal withdrawal treaty, which officials have said must be completed by October to be ratified by the European and British parliaments ahead of the March 29, 2019 Brexit date.

Barnier called the June European Council meeting a “stepping stone toward the October European Council, which will be the final Council for reaching an agreement.”

Barnier and Varadkar were in Dundalk to attend a session of the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit, a government-sponsored series of meetings on the impact of the U.K.s departure on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

At a news conference ahead of the formal conference, they stressed the importance of the so-called backstop solution, already agreed by May, that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EUs customs union and put a customs border in the middle of the Irish Sea, in the absence of some broader agreement to prevent reimposition of a hard border.

The U.K. government rejected the wording for the backstop in the draft legal text of a Withdrawal Agreement presented by the EU in March. Davis told MPs last week the U.K. hadnt “rejected” the concept of a backstop: “Weve just rejected the Commissions first attempt at it,” he said.

Barnier also refused to respond to allegations by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, who said Barnier is “not an honest broker” and accused him of not understanding “the wider unionist culture of Northern Ireland.”

Barnier seemed perplexed by the assertion he has been overly aggressive. “There is no spirit of revenge, no spirit of punishment,” he said. “I am never aggressive.”

He noted he had met with Foster and Diane Dodds, a member of the European Parliament from the DUP.

“My door is open,” Barnier said. “But I am not ready to engage in any polemics.”

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