Ireland has played down the prospect of a Brexit breakthrough, pointing to a “wide gap” between Boris Johnson’s position and that of the European Union.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said there were still “serious problems” over the UK’s efforts to remove the backstop – the contingency plan aimed at ensuring a soft border with Northern Ireland after Brexit.
His comments came as Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay prepared for talks with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, following signs of increased optimism about the prospects of a deal before the UK’s scheduled October 31 exit date.
Mr Coveney said: “There are serious problems that arise because of the change in approach by the British Prime Minister – asking to remove a very significant section within the Withdrawal Agreement without any serious proposals as to how you solve those problems is not going to be the basis for an agreement.
“That’s why I think there is an onus on the British Government to come forward with alternative arrangements – if they have them – which can resolve the Irish border question.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today that Ireland is being asked to replace a “guarantee around that border question” with a promise that “somehow we’ll do our best”.
He said: “We want to find a solution, we want to get a deal, and we want to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly and sensible manner, but we cannot allow Ireland to be the collateral damage of that.
“I think for Britain to ask us to do that is a very unreasonable request, and it won’t be the basis of a deal.”
Mr Johnson wants to scrap the backstop because of concerns it could leave the UK indefinitely tied closely to Brussels’ rules in order to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Barclay travels to Brussels the day after European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker insisted “we can have a deal” before the Halloween deadline.
Mr Juncker said his meeting with Boris Johnson in Luxembourg on Monday was “rather positive” as he assured he was “doing everything to have a deal” to prevent a “catastrophic” no-deal Brexit.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Juncker said “we can have a deal” but was unable to put the chances at more than 50/50 when pressed.
Mr Juncker said that he has no “emotional relationship” with the Irish backstop, which aims to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland but has been a major sticking point to getting a deal through Parliament.
“If the objectives are met – all of them – then we don’t need the backstop,” he added.
The pound reached a two-month high following Mr Juncker’s comments.
Mr Barclay’s department said he will meet Mr Barnier to “take stock” following discussions between the PM’s Europe adviser David Frost and Taskforce 50 – the EU unit dealing with the UK’s departure.
A day earlier, Mr Barnier spoke to Labour MPs Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock, who are key in cross-party efforts to get a deal through Parliament.
Mr Kinnock told BBC’s Newsnight that they left feeling “relatively, cautiously optimistic” after the Brussels meeting because of mounting pressure on the PM.
He said that the negotiator made it clear that a Northern Ireland-only backstop remained on the table.
The EU’s original proposal, which was objected to by the DUP, would see Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s single market and customs union, but give Great Britain the freedom to strike trade deals.
Downing Street had said the UK has shared a series of “confidential technical non-papers” which reflect the ideas being put forward.
Previously documents had been shown to Brussels officials but then taken back at the end of meetings out of fears they would be leaked.
But a “non-paper” is not a formal Government position and falls far short of what has been demanded by Brussels.
The PM was under pressure from Finnish prime minister Antti Rinne to formally outline his plans to the EU by the end of September.
But the Government insisted Mr Johnson will not be bound by an “artificial deadline” to produce formal written proposals.