Tuesday 16 October 2018

Taoiseach's secret deal to break Brexit border stand-off


British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: PA News
British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: PA News
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Ireland and the European Union have agreed that a new EU-UK treaty will apply the conditions of the single market and customs union to avoid the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Independent has learned.

The agreed text between this country and the EU is designed to allow second-phase trade talks to proceed between the EU and the UK.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to outline her position on the border in a meeting tomorrow with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of an EU summit on December 14 and 15.

Should Mrs May accept the joint Ireland/EU position, the UK would then have a further period to come up with acceptable proposals to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

However, should the UK ultimately fail to devise a border arrangement agreed by all sides, then "the rules" of the customs union and single market would continue to apply in any future trade deal between the EU and UK, according to sources in Dublin.

Yesterday, the Sunday Independent was further given to understand that Ireland has an agreed EU text which also "copper-fastens" the common travel area between Ireland and the UK and associated citizens' rights, a transition period and a "commitment" to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

Mrs May will, therefore, this week find herself under pressure to accede to the agreed Ireland-EU position on the border to allow trade talks proceed. However, she is likely to face strong opposition to such a move from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, which supports her government.

On RTE radio yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that whatever deal was made between the EU and the UK, Ireland wanted to avoid a hard border, or, alternatively, that the rules of the customs union and single market would continue to apply in Northern Ireland.

When it was put to him that this would be opposed by the UK, Mr Varadkar replied: "If we're going to move to phase two they're going to have to say yes to something."

Yesterday, Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said there were more common positions between the Government and the DUP than differences.

He said: "I don't believe the DUP wants a hard border. I believe the DUP wants to protect the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP wants to see North-South co-operation in the future. That is good for everybody. It is good for unionism, it is good for nationalism, and it is good for people living on both sides of the border."

Mr Coveney has also said: "There is not an anti-British bone in my body. Britain is a great country and we want a good deal. A good deal for Britain is a good deal for us, but Ireland will not be steamrolled on this issue." He added: "My message is clear - we want to listen to all political parties in Northern Ireland including the DUP but not exclusively to any one party."

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has set tomorrow as an absolute deadline for Mrs May to tell the EU how she intends to solve the border problem.

On Friday he said in Dublin: "Let me say very clearly: if the UK's offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU."

Negotiations between officials from Ireland and the UK to "find a formula of words" satisfactory to all sides are likely to continue up to tomorrow, if necessary, when Mrs May is scheduled to have a working lunch with Mr Juncker at which she will outline her position. The sticking point was always how to resolve the border issue.

The view in Dublin seems to be that the UK is most anxious to move on to trade talks. The belief is that businesses in the UK will make assessments in the first quarter of 2018 based on the state of play in the Brexit negotiations.

Last week, Mr Coveney also indicated that Ireland was not looking for a written commitment to Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union. A new bespoke customs arrangement was possible, he said. "I don't mind what we can call it. We can call it a customs partnership, we can call it a grand trade partnership whatever you want to call it," Mr Coveney added.

It now seems Ireland and the EU has agreed that any proposed new 'customs partnership' or 'grand trade partnership' effectively mimics the existing custom union and single market.

The single market eliminates tariffs, quotas or taxes on trade, and also includes the free movement of goods, services, capital and people; the EU is not only a single market, it is also a customs union, which allows countries to club together and agree to apply the same tariffs to goods from outside the union. Once goods have cleared customs in one country, they can be shipped to others in the union without further tariffs being imposed.

The position adopted by the Ireland and the EU represents something of a gamble. It remains possible that Mrs May will reject the proposal, in which case trade talks between the EU and UK will not proceed.

Ultimately, the possibility would then exist that her rejection could lead to a 'no deal' Brexit. However, the assessment in Dublin seems to be that a 'no deal Brexit' and 'hard Brexit' are largely similar.

Sunday Independent

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