The EU is “ready to improve” its offer on the Irish border, Michel Barnier has said as he warned the “moment of truth” was nearing for Brexit negotiations.
The EU’s negotiator said he wanted most new physical checks to be carried out away from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a key demand of Conservative MPs.
He also said any backstop solution must respect the UK’s territorial integrity.
It comes as Theresa May prepares to win support for her plans from EU leaders.
The UK prime minister will use a dinner in Salzburg on Wednesday to sell her Chequers plan for future co-operation with the EU to the bloc’s 27 other leaders.
There is just over six months to go before the UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019.
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Negotiations are a critical stage, with both sides hoping for an agreement on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal and future trade relations by the start of November at the latest.
Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Barnier said the talks were in the “home straight” but there were still significant areas of disagreement – such as on the role of the European Court of Justice in enforcing the withdrawal agreement and intellectual property issues, including geographical protections for food and drink.It’s my Brexit deal or no deal, May says
He said “decisive” progress was needed on Northern Ireland and, to that end, the EU was “ready to improve” its proposal to prevent a hard border in the event of no other solution being agreed.
Proposals put forward by Brussels in February would see Northern Ireland maintaining full regulatory alignment with the EU in key areas and effectively staying in the customs union and single market.
The UK has insisted this is unacceptable as it would split Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK.
Mr Barnier said he now believed a “practical and operational solution” could be found to address UK concerns and “de-dramatise” the issue.
The EU, he said, would consider how and where physical checks on goods crossing the border were carried out and, critically, who performed them – amid reports the EU may be willing to allow British officials to do so.
“We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked and where, when and by whom these checks could be performed,” he said. “We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border at a company premises or at the markets.”
More widely, he said the negotiations were reaching a crunch point.
“October is the key point in time – it is the moment of truth,” he added. “A lot of issues, including the Irish issue, will I hope have made significant progress and hopefully will have been resolved.”
Mrs May is resisting domestic pressure to rethink her Chequers blueprint from Tory MPs who are concerned that it would leave the UK too closely tied to the EU and unable to fully exploit global trading opportunities.
The prime minister has insisted her plan – agreed at her country’s residence in July – respects the result of the 2016 Brexit vote while protecting British businesses dependent on trade with the EU.
The EU has raised concerns about the UK’s plan, which would see it sign up to a common rule book for trade in goods but have far more flexibility in services.
Unconfirmed reports have suggested key figures such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron are keen to reach some form of agreement that can be signed off at an one-off summit in November.
The two-day gathering in Salzburg is an informal meeting to discuss migration and other challenges facing the EU, rather than a formal summit, so no major announcements are expected from the EU side.