European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: REUTERS
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: REUTERS

London  — European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday that a Brexit deal is possible if the Irish border “backstop”, which the British government wants removed, could be replaced with alternatives.

“I think we can have a deal,” Juncker said in an interview with Sky News, adding that he did not know if the chances of a deal were more than 50-50.

The contentious backstop — an insurance policy to keep the sensitive Irish border open and free of border controls under any circumstances after Brexit — has so far proven to be the main stumbling block in the tortuous Brexit talks.

Juncker reiterated that he did not  have a special attachment to the backstop if another solution was found in the negotiations with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“As far as the so-called alternative arrangements are concerned, allowing us and Britain to achieve the main objectives of the backstop ... if the results are there, I don’t care about the instrument,” he said. “If the objectives are met, all of them, then we don’t need the backstop.”

Sterling hit a two-month high versus the dollar on Juncker’s comments, rising to $1.2546, its highest since July 19.

Juncker’s comments were clips taken from a longer interview to be broadcast on Sunday.

Asked about reports that Northern Ireland could follow EU rules on food and agriculture with other checks being done away from the border, the journalist who interviewed Juncker quoted him as saying: “It is the basis of a deal … it is the starting point and the arrival point.”

Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May drew up the current Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union but repeatedly failed to get British MPs  to back it, with the backstop a major sticking point. She resigned earlier in 2019.

Under the backstop, May agreed that the UK would be tied to the EU’s trading and other rules unless and until another solution is found for the Irish border issue.

London proposed to Brussels earlier in September that common rules for checking animals and animal products could be established across the island of Ireland as part of an alternative to the backstop arrangement.