Brexit: All you need to know about the UK’s EU departure
Q&A: From a hard Border to the Republic exercising a veto as we near the end game
The British government has said the EU exit process would be “seamless”. Photograph: Getty Images
Q: Why are the next few weeks so important for Brexit?
A: Brexit is not due to take place until March 2019. However, the negotiations on phase one of the process are due to be completed by the Summit of European Leaders which takes place in mid-December.
That involves three vitally important preliminary issues. EU negotiators have insisted they must be concluded before talks can progress to the next phase, which will focus on trade between the European Union and United Kingdom.
British prime minister Theresa May is meeting President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, which is the deadline for her to table the offer on those three issues. The 27 remaining EU leaders will make a final decision at the Summit in Brussels on December 14 and 15.
Q: What is the first issue?
A: The so-called Divorce Bill: This is the money Britain must pay to the EU for exiting the union. Britain railed against this initially because it is a net contributor. But over time, it has ceded the principle and is now willing to pay very close to the EU’s demand, which is €60 billion. It is reported the British government is now willing to pay up to €55 billion.
Q: And the second of the three issues?
A: The rights of EU citizens in Britain after Brexit and the rights of British citizens in the EU after the UK departure. This proved to be a sticking point but may be largely resolved ahead of the summit. In November Britain offered EU citizens living in the UK a two-year grace period during which they could apply for settled status. The British government said the process would be “seamless”. But that met with criticism from the EU Parliament which said such a right should be automatic. In subsequent talks both sides have come closer to agreement.
Q: And the last issue?
A: This is the most difficult one and aims to settle the question over how the Border between the South and North will operate after Brexit.
The Government has been looking for assurances from the British that the relationship between both territories will remain effectively border-less, as is the case at present.
However, that is tricky because if there is what’s called “regulatory convergence between North and South”, it might mean a divergence between the North and the rest of the UK, because the North would still be (informally) using the EU regulatory framework.
And that has got the DUP’s hackles up. Party leader Arlene Foster has said there could be “no arrangements agreed that compromise the integrity of the UK single market and place barriers, real or perceived, to the free movement of goods, services and capital between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said it was regrettable that the Brexit question in the North had been reduced to a green versus orange issue.
Q: So where are these talks at?
A: A long way from resolution. And it is unlikely they will be resolved by the time Mrs May meets Mr Juncker on Monday.
Among the suggestions coming from the UK is an exemption from tariffs for smaller companies doing cross-Border trade. But that will still necessitate some kind of Border for all other businesses, be it physical or electronic. The Government has strongly signalled such a solution is not acceptable.
The Government is not looking for the details or all the technical solutions, rather the “parameters”, said a Government source.
“The British need to set them out so the Irish State will know what the British will do and not do in terms of the Border. It’s a form of words we are seeking that will leave us confident that we know what will emerge. That could be setting out the principles that will guide the process across a range of areas to provide us with a level of comfort.”
The Irish have spoken of a new kind of “customs arrangement” that would be put in place that might partly mirror the arrangement if the customs union had remained (in other words, an invisible border).
Mr Coveney has said the Government will insist on there being no “fudge” on this issue.
It’s clear Mr Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have upped the ante on this issue in recent weeks, partly out of impatience with British inaction and the lack of concrete details contained in its proposals. That, in turn, has led to sharp criticism from pro-Brexit politicians in Britain, who have, to all intents and purposes, accused the Taoiseach of trying to go above his station.
The Government’s position has been bolstered by the all party Brexit committee in Westminster which has concluded “that we cannot at present see how leaving the customs union and the single market can be reconciled with there being no Border or infrastructure”.
Q: Will the Government exercises its veto at the EU summit?
A: That is not going to happen. Ireland would have to exercise its veto only if it found itself isolated from the other members of the EU27. There is no evidence that they do not share Irish concerns. Mr Coveney has met the German foreign ministers, among others, in recent weeks and has been reassured on the position. The Taoiseach is meeting President of the EU Council Donald Tusk and Mr Juncker over the course of the weekend. Both are expected to reaffirm the EU position on the Irish Border.