Brexit talks: Border must be tackled before trade, Brussels tells London

EU also notes UK’s lack of ‘concrete commitment’ on divorce bill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: Nobody wants a hard Brexit. Photograph: EPA

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: Nobody wants a hard Brexit. Photograph: EPA


EU leaders will say they expect the UK to explain how it intends to create a frictionless Border in Ireland if it wants to move on to the Brexit trade negotiations.

The draft conclusions of next week’s EU summit make clear that the bar on “sufficient progress” in the Irish strand of the Brexit talks has not been crossed. The draft says that, despite progress in other areas, the Border issue will have to be seriously broached.

On the issue of the UK’s Brexit bill, the draft “notes that, while the UK has stated that it will honour its financial obligations taken during its membership, this has not yet been translated into a firm and concrete commitment from the UK to settle all of these obligations”.

In their present form, the emphasis of the conclusions is understood to reflect the concerns of the Irish Government and the European Commission’s Brexit negotiating team.

At a meeting in Cork yesterday, the Cabinet held a discussion on Brexit for more than three hours.

Sources said there was an acknowledgement that the significant decision about whether to move to the next stage of the Brexit negotiations will have to be made by Christmas. Numerous Ministers confirmed the Government’s determination to remain a central part of the EU27 in negotiations. There were also repeated mentions of the instable political situation in Britain, as well as impatience in other European capitals with London.

The prospect of the UK leaving the EU without an exit deal was briefly mentioned, according to sources, but did not form the basis of substantive discussion. One Minister said it was mentioned in a “very minor context”.

“We have got to control what we can control,” said one Minister of the Government’s attitude to Brexit, noting the situation in London.

It is understood that State agencies will proactively contact small- and medium-size businesses about their Brexit preparations in the coming months, amid concern about the poor take-up to date of some Government schemes.

Sufficient progress

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday expressed confidence that sufficient progress will have been made in Brexit talks by December to allow negotiations to move on to the next phase on future relationships.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged a hard Brexit was always a possibility. “I’m confident it won’t be the outcome. Nobody seems to want that . . . [when] I talk to other European prime ministers and presidents, as I will in Brussels next week, when I talk to the British prime minister. When I talk to the different parties in Northern Ireland, nobody is advocating a hard Brexit, so it would be some monumental disaster and political failure all around if that is the outcome we ended up with.”

The draft text of next week’s summit conclusions says that the European Council “acknowledges that, as regards Ireland, there has been some progress on convergence on principles and objectives regarding protection of the Good Friday Agreement and maintenance of the Common Travel Area”.

It “ invites the Union negotiator to pursue further refinement of these principles, taking into account the major challenge that the UK’s withdrawal represents, including as regards avoidance of a hard Border, and therefore expecting the UK to present and commit to flexible and imaginative solutions called for by the unique situation of Ireland”.

To date in their briefings to journalists, the Border issue has not featured in European Commission accounts of the Brexit discussions, beyond references to “the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects”.

Although UK leaders have spoken repeatedly of their desire to see a “hardware-free” or “frictionless” Border in Ireland, they have been notably short of specific suggestions about how this would be achieved.

It is accepted on all sides that key elements of the Border discussion will be tied up with second-phase talks on trade, but Irish and EU officials apparently believe that it is still possible to establish principles about an open Border in the phase-one divorce talks.