EU and British ‘very close’ to reaching deal on Irish border
Simon Coveney and David Lidington at British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference
Tánaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney with UK minister for the cabinet office, David Lidington. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The European Union and the British government are “very close” to reaching a deal on the Irish border that will pave the way for a Brexit withdrawal agreement, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Theresa May’s de facto deputy prime minister have said.
Mr Coveney and David Lidington, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said a Brexit withdrawal agreement was “very close”.
The pair were speaking after a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin which was also attended by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley.
The Tánaiste said he believes a Brexit deal can be concluded by mid-November, the provisional date for a special summit of the European Council to sign off a withdrawal agreement.
Mr Coveney said a lot of progress had been made in recent week, but added: “We are not quite there yet.”
He said some further movement was needed on the UK side to find a legal wording on the backstop that can be “sold on both sides of the Irish sea”.
The backstop – the guarantee that no matter how future trade talks between the EU an UK go there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland – is the main obstacle remaining to an exit deal.
Sources said Mr Coveney and Mr Lidington will speak by phone over the weekend and there has been speculation in British political circles that Mrs May could present a final deal to her cabinet as soon as Tuesday.
However, Mr Lidington refused to be drawn on this.
London has rejected the EU’s interpretation of the backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland effectively within the European single market and customs union. This would mean checks on goods between the North and Britain.
Mrs May’s government has proposed that the UK as a whole would remain in the customs union for a period after Brexit. This would remove the need for customs checks between the North and Britain, though regulatory checks in areas such as animal health and food safety would still be needed.
The EU had been willing to discuss this, but had so far insisted that it could only be finalised after the UK leaves the EU, as the future shape of the relationship between the two sides is fleshed out.
Reports this week have suggested that the EU may now be prepared to go further and may include some outline details of the proposed EU-UK customs union in the formal withdrawal agreement.
Sources suggest that Mrs May now has to make the political leap to conclude a deal.
Mr Coveney said Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, “has shown the capacity to try to produce new thinking and new ideas to try to accommodate, where possible, British concerns”.
He said the issue of the Border has been complicated by Mrs May’s position that the UK is leaving the European single market and customs union.
“I think we are very close to resolving it, I certainly hope we are,” the Tánaiste said.
Mr Lidington said there has been “movement on both sides” in the last few weeks.
“We certainly, as Simon says, (are) very close to resolving it,” he said.