Sunday 21 January 2018

EU leaders agree tough guidelines for Brexit negotiations, hard border in Ireland among red line issues

Enda Kenny arrives for a meeting of the EPP prior to an EU summit in Brussels. (Picture: AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
Enda Kenny arrives for a meeting of the EPP prior to an EU summit in Brussels. (Picture: AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Sarah Collins

EU leaders have agreed what they described as a “firm and fair" negotiating stance on Brexit, setting red lines on citizens’ rights, a financial settlement and the Irish border.

They insisted on making progress with the UK on the three priority issues before beginning talks on a post-Brexit trade deal.

British prime minister Theresa May accused the bloc of “lining up against” the UK ahead of the talks, as EU leaders made a strong show of unity.

“We will handle it with genuine care, but firmly,” said European Council president Donald Tusk of the upcoming negotiations.

“We need to remain united as EU27,” added Mr Tusk, who chairs the EU’s regular summits. “It is only then that we will be able to conclude the negotiations. Which means that our unity is also in the UK's interest.”

Leaders signed off on a nine-page document that will be fleshed out by the European Commission with a more detailed paper next week. Once that paper is agreed, talks can officially begin, though they are unlikely to get going until after the UK election on June 8.

Citizens’ rights are the bloc’s first priority, with leaders calling for reciprocal and binding guarantees for those affected by Brexit in the UK and the EU, including permanent residency after five years and a simple application procedure.

The UK will be handed a single bill covering its remaining financial obligations to the EU, including the bloc’s 2014-20 budget, the European Investment Bank and the off-budget European Development Fund.

While no figure has yet been agreed, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said it would be “substantial”, while French president François Hollande said there will be “a price and a cost” for the UK.

“It shouldn’t be punitive, but at the same time its clear Europe will defend its interests, and that the UK will have a worse position, tomorrow, outside Europe than it does, today, within Europe,” Mr Hollande said on his way into the meeting, the first since the UK officially triggered its EU exit at the end of March.

The guidelines also say the Good Friday Agreement should be maintained “in all its parts” and that there should be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

But it’s a separate statement on a united Ireland - requested by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and due to be added to the minutes of today’s meeting - that has piqued interest.

That statement is due to clarify that Northern Ireland would be able to seamlessly rejoin the EU in the event of a future vote in favour of Irish unity.

Mr Kenny said Ireland was well-prepared for Brexit and that the draft guidelines reflected the country’s concerns.

“Ireland has prepared assiduously and very well for this over the last 18 months, and our priorities are reflected in the document from the European Parliament and from the European Council,” Mr Kenny said, referring to a non-binding resolution approved by a large majority of MEPs last month, and the EU leaders’s guidelines.

The Taoiseach met the president of the Irish Farmers’ Association, Joe Healy, ahead of the summit in Brussels to the agricultural sector’s Brexit concerns.

“In many ways it is a sad day for the EU but we need to maintain the closest possible trading relationship with the UK and a fully funded CAP [Common Agricultural Policy],” Mr Healy said.

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