Business Brexit

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Brexit ball in UK court as Varadkar refuses to budge

Deadline for a deal unlikely to be met as May expected to ask for more time

British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip during a visit to VFB the Florist
in Twyford, Reading, at the weekend. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip during a visit to VFB the Florist in Twyford, Reading, at the weekend. Photo: PA
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Ireland is sticking to a red-line position that there must be no change to cross-Border trade rules as the Brexit talks look set to miss today's deadline for a deal.

Intense negotiations went late into the night with senior Government sources in Dublin describing the odds on an agreement today as "less than 50pc".

"We're not viewing today as a 'drop dead deadline'," said one source.

British officials are also downplaying a crunch meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and European Parliament President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels this afternoon as "an important staging post" on the way to trade talks.

She was due to bring a formal proposal for the future of the Northern Ireland Border to the meeting but is instead expected to ask for more time to come up with the answer to the so-called 'Irish question'.

There are now just 10 days to go until the European Council summit, where EU leaders will decide whether trade talks can begin.

If the Irish Government isn't placated before December 14, it could completely derail the UK's timeline for Brexit.

Shortly after today's lunch meeting between Mrs May and Mr Juncker, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be briefed on progress from an EU perspective.

He will then have to make the biggest call of his political career when deciding whether to accept the wording of an agreement or further stall the troubled talks.

It is understood the Government has told the UK it does not require an in-depth plan for the future movement of people and goods between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Shona Murray: Northern Ireland is already a 'special' case - in spite of Arlene Foster's wishes

However, it wants "a formal commitment" that there will be no "regulatory divergence" after Brexit.

It is understood that the text of an agreement, which was being worked on last night, only runs to a few pages.

"Essentially, the Irish Government is saying that when it comes to areas like agriculture, education and medicine, the status quo will remain," a source said.

This is proving difficult for Mrs May to put in writing without the support of the DUP, which fears such a move will effectively move the Border into the Irish Sea.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said yesterday that Brexit would involve "a comprehensive trade and customs agreement" between the EU and UK.

"What is not sensible is proposing isolating Northern Ireland from its largest market," she said.

"It makes no sense whatsoever to move the Border to the Irish Sea and make trade with our biggest market - the rest of the United Kingdom - more difficult."

Mr Varadkar and Mrs May were expected to speak by phone before he chaired a special Cabinet meeting at 9am today.

The Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney will seek opinions from ministers on how far to push the issue later in the day.

Sources say EU Council President Donald Tusk will phone the Taoiseach in the afternoon to discuss progress on a draft agreement.

Mr Tusk had set today as the absolute deadline for Mrs May to table firm proposals - but sources in Dublin say there will still be negotiating in the days ahead.

Read More: May caught in the headlights with Dublin and DUP bearing down

"Everything is subject to change. We'll be looking for her to live up to the meaning of her Florence speech," said one source.

In that speech Mrs May pledged to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area, but most significantly she said that the UK "will not accept any physical infrastructure at the Border".

Ireland believes the only way this can be achieved is for Northern Ireland to maintain its "regulatory alignment" with the Republic. Speaking yesterday, Mr Coveney said: "We are looking for parameters within which a solution can be found in phase two - not unreasonable - we'd like a solution to Border issues [that] involves all the UK acting as one, but if that is not possible, both governments need to recognise that Northern Ireland has unique challenges."

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair has warned that the EU cannot allow the continued free flow of goods across the Border if Britain is outside the single market and the customs union.

He said only a "bespoke" arrangement on the island of Ireland would work, but this is unlikely to be accepted by the DUP.

Mr Blair is now actively campaigning for a second referendum on Brexit.

He told the BBC that the UK government's aims in the Brexit negotiations will fail because it wants to leave the single market, but retain all of the benefits.

"It's reversible. It's not done until it's done," he said. "When the facts change, I think people are entitled to change their mind."

Irish Independent

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