Wednesday 22 May 2019

Brexit breakthrough: Taoiseach hails 'significant day' as deal ensuring no hard border finally agreed

  • Britain and EU clinch deal to move Brexit talks forward
  • Varadkar: Agreement on no hard border for Ireland is 'politically bulletproof'
  • May meets EU's Juncker after night flight to Brussels
  • Commission says ready to begin Phase two talks immediately
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Government Press Centre in Dublin after the European Commission announced that
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Government Press Centre in Dublin after the European Commission announced that "sufficient progress" has been made in the first phase of Brexit talks: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Independent.ie Newsdesk and Alan O'Keeffe

THE UK will remain "fully aligned" to EU rules supporting Irish cross-border arrangements if no deal can be agreed, negotiators have confirmed.

The detail on the "tweaked text" - which earlier this morning finally allowed British Prime Minister Theresa May to sign up to the Brexit deal that dramatically broke down on Monday - is now beginning to emerge. 

The European Commission said this morning that enough progress had been made after Britain, the European Union and Ireland delegations worked through the night to end an impasse over the status of the Irish border that had scuppered an earlier attempt to clinch a deal on so-called Phase 1.

And it has emerged that without an agreed solution in Phase 2, the UK will maintain "full alignment" with EU internal market and Customs Union provisions which underpin North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement which largely ended decades of Northern Ireland violence.

The UK said it "remains committed" to protecting North-South co-operation and its guarantee of avoiding a hard border.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was a "significant day" for Ireland.

Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier meet at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal
Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier meet at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

"We have achieved all that we set out to achieve in phase one of these negotiations," he told a press conference in Government Buildings.

"I am satisfied that sufficient progress has now been made on Irish issues, the parameters have now been set and they are good."

He insisted  the agreement on no hard border for Ireland is 'politically bulletproof'.

He said Ireland's focus would now move to phase two of the negotiations. Mr Varadkar said his government would remain "fully engaged and vigilant" throughout the process.

"This is not the end but it is the end of the beginning," he said.

Mr Varadkar said he wanted to assure unionists of his motivations.

"There is no question of us trying to exploit Brexit to move toward Irish unity without consent," he said.

"We don't want to see a border in the Irish Sea anymore than we want there to be a border between Newry and Dundalk or between Letterkenny and Derry. We want to build bridges, not borders."

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at a press conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels, Belgium December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at a press conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels, Belgium December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

"To the nationalist people of Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations and will continue to do so. Your birthright as Irish citizens and, therefore, as Europeans has been protected," he added.

"There will be no hard border on our island and you will never again be left behind by an Irish Government," he said.

In the text, Britain agreed that should London and Brussels fail to agree a final Brexit deal, the United Kingdom will maintain "full alignment" with those rules of the internal market and customs union that help to protect north-south cooperation in Ireland.

It said in the absence of a trade deal, no new barriers would develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom unless the devolved government in Northern Ireland agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate.

"In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland's businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market," it said.

Some reports have suggested 142 areas of cross-border cooperation will have to be sorted out after Brexit.

Others have argued that most of the arrangements are centred around agriculture.

The text said the UK and EU will honour existing commitments to programmes like Peace, which supports development of a more peaceful society in Northern Ireland.

It added: "Possibilities for future support will be examined favourably."

This morning's deal followed talks which continued into the early hours between the Prime Minister and Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, whose party scuppered a deal at the eleventh hour on Monday.

Mrs Foster said that "substantial changes" to the text rejected on Monday would mean there was "no red line down the Irish Sea" in the form of a customs barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the agreement on the Irish border that assures Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the European Union's customs union and single market "puts a floor" under what is possible in negotiations on trade after Britain leaves the EU, Ireland's foreign minister said.

"What it means is any deal that is done has to be better than the default position, otherwise we won't be able to agree it," Simon Coveney told RTE Radio.

"I think what that does is, it puts a floor under what is possible in terms of the outcome that we can't fall below, so Ireland obviously has a huge interest in the phase two negotiations."

He said that one paragraph in the new deal had been added to assuage the concerns of the DUP.

"In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland's businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market," it reads.

Mr Coveney said the government was content at assurances it had achieved about avoiding a hard border. He said there was now "no scenario" that would result in new border checkpoints.

"Ireland supports Brexit negotiations moving to phase two now that we have secured assurances for all on the island of Ireland," he said.

He said the deal "fully protected" the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process and an all-Ireland economy.

The Commission gave its positive verdict in a statement after intense talks, which resulted in Mrs May taking an early-morning flight to Brussels to announce the deal alongside Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Donald Tusk, the chairman of European Union leaders, welcomed the deal but said London still needed to provide more clarity on the new relationship after Brexit, and bemoaned the fact the first round of talks had taken so long.

"We all know that breaking up is hard, but breaking up and building a new relation is much harder," he said. "So much time has been devoted to the easier task and now ... we have de facto less than a year" left for talks before Britain is due to leave in March, 2019.

The Commission's recommendation that sufficient progress has been made will now go to the European Union summit of leaders taking place next week.

"Prime Minister May has assured me that it has the backing of the UK government. On that basis, I believe we have now made the breakthrough we need. Today's result is of course a compromise," Juncker told a hastily-arranged news conference.

May said she expected a formal agreement to be approved at the summit, which begins on Dec. 14.

"I also look forward to next week’s European Council meeting, where I hope and expect we will be able to get the endorsement of the 27 (member countries) to what is a hard-won agreement in all our interests," May said.

The commission will now begin work on phase two talks, which cover a transitional exit period, trade and long-term relations with the bloc.

Draft guidelines showed the transition period would last around two years. During that time, Britain will remain part of the customs union and single market but will no longer take part in EU institutions or have a vote. It will still be subject to EU law.

Moving to talks about trade and a Brexit transition is crucial for the future of May's premiership, and to keep trade flowing between the world's biggest trading bloc and its sixth- largest national economy after Britain leaves on March 30, 2019.

The main elements of the new agreement were outlined by the Taoiseach this morning. He listed them as:

1. The Good Friday Agreement is protected in all its parts.

2. Everyone born in Northern Ireland will continue to have the right to Irish and therefore EU citizenship.

3. The Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland. British and Irish citizens will continue to have the freedom to work, study, access housing and healthcare and pensions and welfare in each other's countries as though we were citizens of both.

4. The United Kingdom is committed to avoiding a hard border as an over-arching requirement with which any future arrangements must be compatible. There will be no physical infrastructure or related checks or controls.  Three options have been set out as to how this can be achieved.

Ireland's preferred option is a deep and comprehensive agreement between the UK and EU which will allow us to trade as we do now.  However that might not be possible in which there is a backstop arrangement in place whereby Ireland and perhaps all of the UK will maintain full alignment with the rules of the internal market and customs union which are relevant for the avoidance of a border, north-south cooperation and an all Ireland economy.

5Businesses in NI are being given the additional assurance that Northern Ireland business will continue to have unfettered access to the whole of the UK and that no new barriers will exist. NI and GB will not drift apart.

6 Funding which is so valuable to border communities will continue to 2021 with hopes to continue it beyond that.

7The UK is committed to ensuring that in NI there is no diminution in human rights safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in European law.

8 There will continue to be a distinct strand on Ireland in the next phase of the Brexit negotiations.

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