EU support for Ireland is welcome even as fears grow

Government content with EU approach so far but anxious about slow pace of progress

Theresa May: expected to signal a concession on the “divorce bill” promising that UK contributions to the EU budget will continue until 2020 at least. Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg

Theresa May: expected to signal a concession on the “divorce bill” promising that UK contributions to the EU budget will continue until 2020 at least. Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg

 

The visit of the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt, to Dublin on Thursday offered the Dáil and the Government reassurance, as far as he could.

He told them what the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has told them: that preserving an open border in Ireland is among the highest EU priorities in the Brexit negotiations. Other EU figures of lesser luminosity have told them the same thing. The early summer meeting of the European People’s Party in Wicklow gave similar assurances of the EU’s commitment to Ireland.

The Government is nervously content with the EU’s approach to handling Brexit so far; Brussels has done everything Dublin has asked of it, and more. Mr Verhofstadt’s visit is part of that. The European Parliament has no role in the negotiations, though it must approve the final agreement. So even the language is co-ordinated. “There’s not a chink of light between what they’re doing and what we’ve asked them to do,” says one Irish official.

But the negotiations remain stuck in first gear, barely moving, and the uncertainty about the future is only adding to Irish and Northern Irish fears about the future. Assurances from Mr Verhofstadt are one thing. But the real action is elsewhere.

May’s Florence speech

Despite British requests, the EU will not talk about the “future relationship” – which will include the future trade relationship, and therefore the question of a customs border – until sufficient progress has been made on the separation agreement. But there are hopes that a major speech on Friday in Florence by British prime minister Theresa May will lead to a breakthrough at the EU-UK talks, which resume next week in Brussels.

Leaks of Ms May’s speech have suggested that she will signal a concession on the “divorce bill” promising that UK contributions to the EU budget will continue until 2020 at least, the final year of the current EU budgetary cycle and a year after the UK is scheduled to leave the union.

British sources have put the value of this at €20 billion – a significant chunk of the €60 billion or so that Brussels says the UK will have to pay to cover future liabilities it had undertaken when an EU member.

Up until now the EU has refused to talk about the future relationship (including trade and transitional arrangements) until the UK talks about money, and the UK has refused to talk about money until the EU talks about the future. Ms May hopes that Friday’s expected concession will get over the impasse

Opportunities for progress

Will the Florence speech unlock the way forward? “Our expectation is that the speech will open opportunities for progress without transforming the picture,” says one high-ranking Irish official.

“All the indications are that it will be positive. Certainly the British have allowed expectations to develop of significant movement,” the source says, although Irish Government sources say Ms May is not expected to include specific language on Ireland in the text.

Irish and EU sources say that no matter what Mrs May says, EU leaders will not, when they meet in a month’s time , judge that the talks have made sufficient progress that would enable the second phase of talks to begin. But a sustained improvement in relations might mean that the “sufficient progress” benchmark could be reached by the December summit.

If the process trundles into 2018 without much progress, Dublin will start to get very nervous. Although it resolutely sticks with the EU line that the talks cannot move on unless the British government starts negotiating properly, the Irish Government is actually very keen that the talks make more progress. Irish eyes will be on Florence on Friday.