Saturday 25 November 2017

May sets out vision for a two-year 'transition' period in Brexit talks

Theresa May's much anticipated speech in Florence made only a brief reference to Ireland, reiterating that the peace process must be protected and that there should be no return to
Theresa May's much anticipated speech in Florence made only a brief reference to Ireland, reiterating that the peace process must be protected and that there should be no return to "physical infrastructure" on the Border. Picture: Reuters

Colm Kelpie and Kevin Doyle

Theresa May has set out her plan for a two-year post-Brexit transition period under current EU rules, but again repeated that ultimately no deal would still be better than a bad deal.

The confirmation that Downing Street wants a bridging period that would see the UK abide by existing trading terms will give comfort to businesses here and in Britain fearing a cliff edge exit in March 2019, but could stoke anger among Brexiteers.

The British prime minister's much anticipated speech in Florence made only a brief reference to Ireland, reiterating that the peace process must be protected and that there should be no return to "physical infrastructure" on the Border.

But she gave no further detail on her vision for the Border, or what solutions she intended to produce to maintain the status quo - a key ask from the European Union.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, welcomed Mrs May's "willingness to move forward", but said there was little clarity on Ireland.

He also criticised Mrs May's approach to Ireland and Northern Ireland, saying the UK government had a "special responsibility" for the island's post-Brexit future.

"The United Kingdom is the co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement," Mr Barnier said in a statement. "Today's speech does not clarify how the UK intends to honour its special responsibility for the consequences of its withdrawal for Ireland."

Mrs May said the UK would ultimately leave both the single market and the customs union, and ruled out both European Economic Area (EEA) membership, or a Canada-style free trade deal. She provided few specifics as to what this new trading relationship would look like, bar a desire for tariff-free trade. "There is no need to impose tariffs where we have none now, and I don't think anyone sensible is contemplating this," she said.

As expected she focused on the need for an "implementation period" in which businesses and public services should only have to plan for one set of changes in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

Read More: Europe criticism over May's lack of clarity on Border

"So during the implementation period access to one another's markets should continue on current terms and Britain also should continue to take part in existing security measures. And I know businesses, in particular, would welcome the certainty this would provide," she said.

This period should be time limited, she added, at two years and during that time free movement of people would continue, although there would be a registration system.

Beyond her vision for a transition, Mrs May pledged protection of EU citizens' rights after Brexit, saying decisions by the European Court of Justice would be taken into account by British courts. On the financial settlement, she also said Britain would "honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership".

"Still I do not want our partners to fear that they will need to pay more or receive less over the remainder of the current budget plan as a result of our decision to leave," she said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gave a "cautious welcome" to the speech.

"I think it is a genuine effort by the prime minister to move things along and make progress," Mr Varadkar said. "We will of course need further clarity and further understanding as to how a transition period might work. But requesting a transition period is also a step in the right direction."

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the "additional clarity" provided by Mrs May.

Read More: Broadly positive speech by May perhaps signals the end of the beginning

But he added that "it is clear that there are still many outstanding issues and a lot of work is still required before European leaders can make a decision that parallel discussions on the EU's future relationship with the UK can begin".

Fianna Fáil's Brexit spokesman Stephen Donnelly said the speech showed that a hard Brexit was still on the cards, as the UK has ruled out continued membership of the customs union.

"The EEA model has also been disposed of, alongside a Canadian-style agreement," he said. "The prime minister reiterated today that no deal is better than a bad deal. The UK is preparing for every eventuality - including a hard Brexit. Ireland must do the same."

The fourth round of Brexit talks, delayed due to the speech, will begin on Monday.

Irish Independent

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