Wednesday 21 November 2018

Brexit deal 'done' - but EU fears May can't get it over line at home

Hopes of a November deal slip despite positivity on hammering out solution to Border

Tall order: Theresa May. Picture: Reuters
Tall order: Theresa May. Picture: Reuters

Kevin Doyle in Helsinki

A Brexit deal is effectively done - but it now depends on UK Prime Minister Theresa May's ability to "land the plane".

Irish sources have indicated that negotiations have moved on again, since all sides said 95pc of the work was done.

The Irish Border question remains the outstanding issue but it is understood the framework is largely in place for UK-wide customs arrangement that will preserve an open Border on this island.

"Everything is in the landing zone but we need to see if she's capable of landing the plane now," a senior figure close to the talks told the Irish Independent.

The last-minute demand for a 'review mechanism' of the so-called Northern Ireland backstop has complicated the process. However, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said yesterday that "creative language" could solve the problem.

At the same time, he cast doubt over the likelihood of a special summit of EU leaders taking place later this month to sign off on a withdrawal agreement.

Speaking in Helsinki where he will meet with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier today, Mr Varadkar said: "I do think with every day that passes the possibility of having a special summit in November become less likely."

He said that a scheduled meeting of leaders in mid-December would still be a workable deadline, but after that the no-deal scenario becomes very real. "Not getting it done in November doesn't mean we can't get in done in the first two weeks of December. Beyond that you are into the New Year which wouldn't be a good place," he said.

After a marathon session on Tuesday, the UK cabinet is on stand-by for fresh talks to agree a Brexit deal if there are further developments.

But Mrs May is under intense pressure to publish the legal advice behind her Brexit plan.

Brexiteer members of her own party, led by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, are joining calls from the Labour Party and the DUP.

They want to see the full legal advice setting out how any customs arrangement to avoid a hard Irish Border could be ended to avoid it becoming a permanent agreement.

The DUP, whose 10 MPs prop up the prime minister's administration in the Commons, said it was "in the public interest" for the legal advice to be disclosed.

Mr Varadkar reiterated yesterday that the 'backstop' could not have a time limit and must remain in place "unless and until" a new trade deal ensuring an open Border was negotiated.

Defending his willingness to consider allowing a 'review mechanism' be established for the backstop, Mr Varadkar said it was a matter of "creative language".

"It can't be one that would allow the United Kingdom to resile unilaterally from its commitment that there should be no hard Border in Ireland," the Taoiseach said.

He insisted the UK would not be able to pull Northern Ireland out of a customs arrangement with the EU unless a better relationship was put in place.

"For me, it's always about the objection more so than the mechanism. We're trying to achieve a guarantee that a hard Border won't emerge between Ireland and Northern Ireland," he said.

Mrs May updated European Council president Donald Tusk on the situation yesterday morning.

He said the call was a chance to "take stock of progress" and discuss the way ahead.

Mr Barnier also played down expectation of any sudden moves, saying "more work is needed" but "we remain determined to reach a deal".

Mrs May told MPs last month that 95pc of the deal had been agreed but a Downing Street source said: "That is just where we are so far. It does not imply that a deal has been done."

Irish Independent

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