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Barnier rules out Chequers but says deal ‘85% agreed’

‘In reach’: EU
chief Brexit
Michel Barnier
gives cautious
hope to
Theresa May
as he speaks
to business
leaders PIC: AP

THE EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has said a deal on the UK’s withdrawal is ‘within reach’.

Michel Barnier claimed that up to 85 per cent of the text had now been agreed — but warned that Northern Ireland remained a sticking point as he savaged Theresa May’s Chequers plan to avoid a hard border with the Irish Republic.

Speaking to business chiefs in Brussels, he said a proposal for the UK to share a ‘common rulebook’ on goods with the EU without signing up to other regulations would give it an unfair advantage.

Red line: DUP leader Arlene Foster has warned Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently PIC: GETTY

He also criticised proposals for officials in Britain to collect duties on goods bound for the European mainland.

Mr Barnier said: ‘They [the UK] want their own external tariffs, all the while collecting European customs duties. That would generate loss of income for us and VAT income for member states.

‘This type of à la carte single market system would be tantamount to giving a huge competitive edge to UK companies.’

Pressure: Theresa May faces MPs yesterday at crucial stage in Brexit talks PIC: GETTY

Instead, he laid out a series of alternative suggestions for ‘frictionless’ trade, including a plan for companies in Britain to fill in customs forms online before sending goods to Northern Ireland.

But he also made clear that the EU’s proposals would involve new customs and regulatory checks on goods travelling between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, including inspections on ‘100 per cent’ of animals and animal products arriving in ports.

His comments came as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) again warned it would not accept any deal which would result in Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK. It is understood that the party’s MPs would vote down the Budget later this month if Mrs May breaks its ‘red line’ on Brexit.

But Downing Street insisted that defeat on the Budget would not amount to a vote of no confidence in the government.

Mrs May’s Chequers proposals were rejected by EU leaders last month. The growing tension comes ahead of a crunch summit of the European Council next Wednesday and Thursday.