EU to insist Britain abandons hardline Border stance

Simon Coveney to meet Michel Barnier as Brussels seeks UK commitment on backstop

Tánaiste Simon Coveney: A spokesman for him said the remaining 27 EU member states ‘have been consistent that there can be no backsliding on any part of December’s agreement’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tánaiste Simon Coveney: A spokesman for him said the remaining 27 EU member states ‘have been consistent that there can be no backsliding on any part of December’s agreement’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

EU negotiators will this week insist the British abandon their hardline position and show a willingness to commit to the so-called backstop guaranteeing no hard border in Ireland post-Brexit before talks progress.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney will meet the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday just before Mr Barnier meets the UK’s Brexit secretary David Davis at the beginning of a crucial week for negotiations between London and Brussels around the UK’s planned exit from the EU in March 2019.

Brussels and Dublin are seeking a clear commitment from the British that there has to be a fully operational backstop arrangement – ensuring the avoidance of a hard border – before any agreement on the post-Brexit transitional period can be reached.

The British are looking to agree a transition deal at the summit of EU leaders in Brussels later this week as there is growing unease among UK businesses about the possible collapse of talks and a sudden “cliff-edge” Brexit this time next year.

The EU side, at the encouragement of the Irish Government, has insisted the UK clarifies its intention to give legal force to the “backstop” commitment London made in December that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union if there was no other way of avoiding a hard border.

Sea border

British prime minister Theresa May rejected as “unacceptable” the legal text around the backstop contained in a protocol with the draft withdrawal agreement published by the EU last month. She said it would create a border in the Irish Sea dividing Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The UK government has, however, not yet signalled how it would maintain an open border.

Sources said the EU wanted to see movement from the British on the Border issue in the Barnier-Davis meeting to allow negotiations to progress to the transitional agreement and future EU-UK relations.

A spokesman for Mr Coveney said on Sunday the remaining 27 EU member states “have been consistent that there can be no backsliding on any part of December’s agreement”.

“This highlights the importance of the UK engaging meaningfully on all aspects of the withdrawal agreement, including the fallback protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland,” he said.

The Tánaiste was looking forward to hearing Mr Barnier’s assessment of whether that is happening, he said. “This will be necessary to move the negotiations on at Friday’s European Council, ” he added.

Frantic efforts

Irish Government officials remained in close contact with their British counterparts and European Commission negotiators over the weekend as frantic efforts to agree a text for this week’s European summit continue.

Irish and EU officials said privately that Ms May had to move from her hardline position on the Border or there will be no agreement this week on the withdrawal agreement, and therefore no deal on the transition.

“She is not being asked to agree to the backstop but more to the principle that there has to be a backstop,” said one EU source.

Unless the British signal that they will move towards the EU position or table workable alternatives that give effect to the agreement the British signed up to in December, “we are stuck”, said one source.

Speaking in New York, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he did not believe Ireland would be forced to block a Brexit deal this week because of the Border.

“It won’t be the case of Ireland having to block it because this is very much the position of the European Union, not just Ireland,” he said.

Mr Varadkar will travel to Berlin on Tuesday to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of the key EU summit at the end of the week.