EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has hit back at claims that the Brexit deal to be voted on by MPs next week represents a “humiliation” for the UK.
In a speech in Brussels on Thursday, Barnier described the deal on the table as the “only and best possible” agreement in a bid to deter its detractors on both sides of the Commons.
But the French politician was later confronted with the scale of domestic opposition to the deal he has spent the last 18 months brokering with the UK government.
Barnier’s speech to the EU’s committee of the regions was followed by a debate on the deal involving politicians from across the continent.
He was told that “the British people have been humiliated by this withdrawal agreement” by Ulster Unionist councillor Arnold Hatch.
Hatch added: “The most pernicious clause is the backstop agreement which is in effect a trap which will tie the UK and more particularly Northern Ireland to EU regulations forever unless the EU agrees to release us from the shackles. We are virtual prisoners in this system.”
Hitting back, Barnier said: “I do not see this humiliation to which you refer. I cannot see it myself.
“We have reached an agreement with the UK government, which represents Northern Ireland. It is a balanced agreement, it is a good agreement for the economy of the entire island, including Northern Ireland.
“You appear to be criticising the backstop but we agreed upon it with the UK government. It is not necessarily going to be used, in fact it’s not intended to be used. But we have it there as a form of insurance in order to ensure that we protect peace.”
A European commission spokesperson refused to comment on reports that the UK government is considering giving MPs a say on whether the backstop should be activated.
He said only: “There is a deal on the table which is the best possible one, actually the only one. Let’s see what the House of Commons will say.”
EU leaders will hold crisis talks within 48 hours if the deal is voted down next Tuesday, Yahoo Finance UK has revealed.
Barnier said during Thursday’s debate that there was no better relationship with the EU than being a full member, although he offered no encouragement to the half a dozen UK politicians who spoke in favour of a second referendum.
“The process is underway, it is the will expressed by the majority of UK citizens,” he said.
Barnier also came under pressure from EU27 politicians over fishing rights, with one calling on him to “be tough” with the UK to maintain existing access to UK waters.
“We will try to find a balanced agreement,” he replied. “It may not be the same as now because the UK will leave the fisheries policy but they will have to guarantee access to British waters and we will have to guarantee access of UK processed products to our market.”