Government expects EU to allow Brexit delay - but with UK plan

EU negotiator Michel Barnier due in Dublin to discuss no-deal plans with Government

UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt says Theresa May is "leaving no stone unturned" in her attempts to resolve the current Brexit impasse. Video: EU Council

 

The Government expects EU leaders to agree to Theresa May’s request for a further delay to Brexit this week but to press the UK prime minister for a concrete plan on Britain’s departure, sources said.

Another crunch week in the protracted Brexit process begins with the visit of the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to Dublin on Monday.

His arrival comes two days before EU leaders gather in Brussels to consider an extension to the UK’s departure, which is due to take place at 11pm on Friday.

Mr Barnier will meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe as the EU negotiator teases out with the Government how, in a no-deal scenario, to avoid a hard Irish border after Brexit, while protecting the integrity of the EU single market.

The aim of his visit was “to take stock of developments in London as well as the ongoing intensive discussions on the planning for a possible no-deal scenario”, said an EU official.

Mr Barnier’s visit, which he requested, will allow him to report back to EU leaders at the European Council summit on Wednesday about the Government’s views.

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Solidarity

A spokesman for the Taoiseach said the main purpose of the visit was “to show solidarity with Ireland” but that Mr Varadkar “will also emphasise the extent of Ireland’s no-deal preparations”.

Irish and EU officials are said to have identified where the problems would arise in trying to maintain an open border while meeting strict EU rules on border checks, but possible solutions are still being explored.

“There’s a lot of technical issues to be worked out; what to do about smuggling, for example. The [European] Commission is being quite constructive but it is not going to accept a total departure, in the style of what the British have proposed, from checks and inspections,” said one official.

In the UK, Mrs May defended her decision to seek a compromise with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the terms of the UK’s departure, arguing it was the only way to ensure Britain leaves the EU. The prime minster said in a video statement that there was a risk Brexit could “slip through our fingers” after MPs rejected her deal three times and ruled out leaving the EU without a deal.

‘Flextension’

The intensity of ongoing discussions on no-deal planning will depend on the political appetite among the leaders for a “flextension” to the “article 50” exit process. This would involve extending the UK’s departure, by as long as a year, with the flexibility for earlier exit should the House of Commons agree a Brexit deal.

A Government spokesman said the Taoiseach had signalled he was “open to an extension for the UK but it would need to be accompanied by a plan, that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated and that any talks must focus on the future relationship”.

Government sources expect opponents of an extension, notably France, to agree to delay Brexit to avoid the potential damage from a no-deal exit. The sources downplayed the fears of UK disrupting EU business in the event of a long extension.

Strict standards

Mr Varadkar indicated over the weekend that he expected checks to take place in Northern Ireland ports in the event of a no-deal scenario to avoid hard infrastructure appearing at the Border.

The Government is still pushing for the more intensive agri-food checks to take place at ports and the island of Ireland to be treated as a whole on the EU’s strict sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS). This will require the co-operation of the British government but a Government source indicated the commission would agree with any such plan.

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