Tuesday 18 June 2019

'Genuine progress' made on Common Travel Area and Good Friday Agreement - Barnier

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, and British Secretary of State David Davis (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, and British Secretary of State David Davis (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Colm Kelpie

Michel Barnier’s claim that “genuine progress” had been made on Irish matters in the latest round of Brexit talks was a rare moment of positivity in a news conference that laid bare the gulf between the UK and EU.

 Irish sources believe progress has been made on the issues discussed this week relating to the Common Travel Area and the Good Friday Agreement, but that much more technical work remains to be done on the latter, particularly in relation to the maintenance of north/south cooperation post Brexit. 

More broadly, Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, warned that no decisive progress had been made overall as he stood alongside his British counterpart, David Davis, at the close of the third round of negotiations.

He chastised Britain for demanding “the impossible” in its recent position papers, including having a say on the EU’s single-market rules even after it leaves.

He said both sides disagreed again on the EU’s demand that the European Court of Justice has authority in the enforcement of rights of EU citizens in Britain after Brexit.

And clear divisions remain regarding the amount of money the UK owes the EU, with Barnier acknowledging that the two parties remain far apart. So to hear that the discussions on Ireland had been “fruitful” was at least one welcome development.

“On that subject we have made genuine progress, on the question of the Common Travel Area, on the basis of guarantees from the United Kingdom, and we have also been able to clarify work that still needs to be done on a constructive spirit, in particular on north/south cooperation in the framework of the Good Friday Agreement,” Mr Barnier said.

Irish issues were discussed at length on Wednesday, with the EU team putting a range of technical questions to their UK counterparts in terms of the working of the Common Travel Area post Brexit.

It is understood these questions included British treatment of other EU citizens vis-a-vis the CTA, with the EU side welcoming the commitment in the UK’s position paper that London would have no problem with EU citizens travelling within Ireland. So far so good.

But on matters relating to the Good Friday Agreement, while there are no differences in principle, much more technical work is said to be required in terms of how north/south cooperation can be maintained, in the absence of common EU rules, after the UK’s EU withdrawal.

Read more: Coveney urges NI businesses to lobby MPs for a soft Brexit, warning that Ireland cannot stay quiet

It is also understood there are questions around the rights of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland post Brexit and how they will be defined under EU law.

Sources here seem content with how matters have progressed in relation to  Irish issues in the talks this week.

The thornier border question in terms of trade and goods, however, has not been dealt with in any substantive way yet, as it will be for the next phase of the talks on the future relationship.

The EU has said that phase can only start if “sufficient progress” has been made on the terms of Britain’s departure. That’s a way off yet.

“We are quite far from being able to say that sufficient progress has taken place, sufficient for me to be able to recommend to the European Council that it engage in discussions on the future relationship between the UK and EU,” Mr Barnier said.

The gulf remains wide on the amount that Britain must cough up to settle its EU commitments. Mr Barnier also warned that the single market would not be undermined by Brexit.

“The UK wants to take back control, wants to adopt its own standards and regulations – but it also wants to have these standards recognised automatically in the EU,” he said. This is simply impossible. You cannot be outside the single market and shape its legal order.”

Mr Davis said the two sides had made “some concrete progress” and that there was a “high degree of convergence” on Irish issues. He also signalled that the UK was willing to pay more than the legal minimum required.

So what next? Two further rounds of negotiations are due before a crucial summit of EU leaders at the end of October. A paper is expected to be published in the coming weeks on Ireland by the EU, expanding on the negotiating guidelines announced earlier in the year.

Sources say there will be little new or groundbreaking in it, but will pick up on some of the points made in the negotiations.

The clock is ticking.

“Time is passing quickly,” Mr Barnier said. “And it was short to start with.”

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