Northern Ireland now emerging as pivotal issue in Brexit talks
- Border one of top priorities
- Barnier ‘determined’ in talks
- Trade deal discussed at ‘end’
Northern Ireland is emerging as the pivotal issue in Brexit talks, given the political sensitivities involved.
The issue dominated a first meeting of EU and UK Brexit negotiations yesterday, with both sides agreeing to handle the peace process, common travel area and Border separately to other issues in the talks.
"This is one of the most sensitive issues before us," said EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
However, UK Brexit Secretary David Davis warned the "very sensitive" issue of the Irish Border may not be resolved until near the end of the Brexit talks.
The Irish Border is one of the EU's top three priorities in the first phase of talks, along with citizens' rights and the UK's financial settlement.
The bloc insists on making "sufficient progress" on all three issues before discussing a future trade deal with the UK.
But while citizens' rights and the UK's financial settlement with the EU will be left to technical teams of officials, "a dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland has been launched under the authority of the Co-ordinators", according to the terms of reference for Brexit talks.
Sabine Weyand, the EU's deputy chief negotiator, and Olly Robbins, the British prime minister's main adviser, will steer the discussions.
"Given the range of political and technical issues at stake, I think this very much justifies our dialogue and the dialogue should indeed represent a safeguard to all concerned that we are very much committed to this as a priority," Mr Barnier said.
He said there was a "very sensitive political context" given the looming deadline for forming a Northern Ireland Executive, the fact that a new Government is only recently in place in Dublin and the "ongoing political discussions" in London.
Mr Davis said the move had "absolutely nothing to do with negotiations inside the Houses of Commons", where British Conservatives are in talks with the Democratic Unionist Party to try to form a minority government.
While the UK has said repeatedly that it wants out of the EU's single market and customs union - which offers tariff-free access to the EU, but requires countries to cede power to make their own trade deals - the DUP's manifesto says it wants a customs agreement and "arrangements to facilitate ease of movement of people, goods and services".
However, Mr Davis said a deal on Ireland would be linked to a future trade deal and customs arrangements.
"This is a technically difficult issue, but it's one which I am certain is soluble, although it will probably take us to the end of the process, when we have already decided what our customs and free trade arrangements are," Mr Davis said.
At the meeting yesterday, EU and UK negotiators did not get into substance, but instead worked out the logistics for future meetings, agreeing to hold monthly sessions and exchange position papers ahead of time.
The UK has given in to the EU's demand to keep talks on a future free trade deal for later, once "significant progress" has been made on citizens, money and Ireland.
Mr Davis also rowed back on previous rhetoric that "no deal is better than a bad deal", saying he wanted "to achieve the best possible outcome and strongest possible partnership" with the EU.
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The UK will publish a detailed paper on Monday "outlining an offer" on citizens' rights, Mr Davis said, which he hoped would lead to a swift agreement.
Both sides were determined to give the talks a positive spin, with Mr Davis and Mr Barnier exchanging mountaineering gifts - a walking stick and a book on hiking - ahead of the all-day meeting.
Mr Barnier said the meeting was a "useful" opportunity to "get off on the right foot", and quoting French diplomat and EU founding father Jean Monnet, he said he was "neither optimistic nor pessimistic" but "determined".
"We must lift the uncertainty caused by Brexit," Mr Barnier added.
"For both the EU and the UK, a fair deal is possible, and far better than no deal."
Responding to Mr Barnier, Mr Davis quoted wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill: "No doubt the road ahead will at times be challenging, but as Churchill once said, a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity.
"An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
EU leaders meet in Brussels later this week, where they will be briefed on the talks.
Mr Barnier and Mr Davis will reconvene for a second round of talks in the week commencing July 17.