The European Union has softened its approach to the Irish border backstop "insurance policy" arrangement, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said this evening, in a push to effectively complete the Brexit deal within the next month.
Speaking in Brussels ahead of a summit of EU leaders in Salzburg tomorrow and Thursday, Barnier confirmed that work was ongoing to improve the offer to Britain and said a summit in Brussels next month will be the "moment of truth" for whether a deal is possible before the Brexit deadline in March.
“We are ready to improve this proposal,” Barnier told reporters after briefing EU ministers.
“Work on the EU side is ongoing, we are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked. Where, when and by whom these checks could be performed,” he said.
The backstop would mean Northern Ireland has to follow customs union and many single market rules after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, which would create a "common regulatory area" in order for goods to move freely between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Prime Minister Theresa May ruled out Brussels' common regulatory area suggestion and said the backstop plan should apply to the whole of the UK and be time-limited, which has been rejected by the EU.
Barnier stressed that he wants to "de-dramatise" Brexit and added that the deal is only an insurance policy and will not be used if Britain and the EU are able to negotiate a close trading relationship.
It was reported yesterday that Barnier is prepared to accept that technology could be used to monitor goods moving between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain after Brexit – meaning there would not need to be customs checks at the border.
That arrangement would still see Northern Ireland as part of the EU's Single Market and customs union if a trade agreement isn't reached by the time of Brexit – a position Theresa May has repeatedly ruled out as unacceptable.
Downing Street refused to comment on the report, with a spokeswoman merely suggesting that negotiations are "ongoing".