Tuesday 17 September 2019

No new Border solutions offered by May in lengthy phone call to Taoiseach

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

British Prime Minister Theresa May failed to offer new ideas on the "unique circumstances" facing the Border region during a 40-minute phone call with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The pair spoke at length about Brexit ahead of a surprise visit to Brussels by Mrs May amid efforts to end the deadlock in talks.

Mrs May, along with Brexit Minister David Davis, had dinner in Brussels last night with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

The meeting ended with hugs from the EU chief and an agreement that negotiations on the UK's departure from the EU need to be sped up.

Ahead of a meeting of EU leaders on Thursday, both sides said the stalled talks "should accelerate over the months to come".

The prime minister's office insisted that the previously unpublicised meeting had been planned for some time.

But the published EU schedules of meetings taking place this week had made no reference to it.

Much of the focus is on the Brexit divorce bill, with EU estimates placing it at between €60bn and €100bn to cover ongoing budget deals already made, and the cost of British EU officials' salaries and pensions.

London has rejected these figures, and Mrs May is understood to be prepared to pay €20bn per year for two years.

Mrs May's office downplayed any suggestion that new proposals were on the table, arguing that her recent speech in Florence, Italy, constituted her latest offer.

A spokesman for Mr Varadkar said the two leaders had last night spoken on the phone and discussed Brexit.

"This included the unique circumstances regarding the Border, and preparation for this week's European Council meeting in Brussels," the Taoiseach's spokesman said.

But he offered no further detail, suggesting there was no sign of any imminent breakthrough.

"They looked forward to seeing each other in Brussels on Thursday and agreed to maintain close contact on all of the above issues," he said.

Earlier, Mrs May also spoke on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and also planned a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron on the issue.

The Taoiseach will travel to Brussels for the special EU leaders' summit.

But unless there is a huge turnaround in the negotiations, there appears little prospect of things moving on to the EU-UK post-Brexit trade relationship, which is crucial to Ireland's interests.

Mrs May's diplomatic foray coincides with stronger signals coming from London.

At the weekend the British Finance Minister Philip Hammond, seen as a Brexit moderate, referred to the EU as "the enemy".

There were also reported signals in London that Britain is now seriously contemplating "walking away with no deal".

Many observers had noted no sign of the UK government putting in place strategic plans for the huge and costly customs operation that a "no deal" would comprise. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, attending an EU ministers' meeting in Luxembourg, again spoke of the need for progress in the Brexit negotiations.

Irish Independent

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