Government ramps up efforts to reach breakthrough on Border

Ministers intensify contacts with Britain and EU prior to crucial Brexit meeting on Monday

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker: will meet with British prime minister Theresa May on Monday.  Photograph: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker: will meet with British prime minister Theresa May on Monday. Photograph: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

 

Irish Ministers and diplomats have embarked on a high-level round of contacts with the British government and their EU counterparts in an attempt to secure a breakthrough on the issue of the post-Brexit Border by the weekend.

A flurry of meetings and calls have been taking place this week and will intensify on Thursday and Friday, sources said. On Wednesday night Government Buildings confirmed that the president of the European Council Donald Tusk will visit Dublin for talks with the Taoiseach on Friday.

Dublin is seeking to maintain EU backing for the Irish position on the Border in advance of a crucial deadline on Monday, when the British prime minister Theresa May meets the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.

The State is seeking a clear commitment from the British that there will be no change to the Border arrangements

The Irish Times understands that papers are being exchanged between the commission’s negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier, and the British on the Border issue. The Government has seen the British proposals on the Border and has a direct input into the EU position.

Sources say that there are signs of progress in the proposals towards language that could be acceptable to Ireland, but there is still some distance to travel.

The State is seeking a clear commitment from the British that there will be no change to the Border arrangements. The way to achieve this, Irish officials have argued in Brussels, is for the British to commit that there will be no “regulatory divergence” between the EU and the UK after Brexit.

The British negotiators fear, however, that this would limit their freedom when negotiating trade deals with other countries after Brexit. The Government is keen to divorce the issue of regulatory divergence from the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

Cautious optimism

There is cautious optimism in Government circles that the British will move in the coming days to offer concrete commitments on the Border which would allow Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to agree that “sufficient progress” has been made in the talks to endorse a move to the second phase – incorporating trade talks between the UK and EU – after Christmas.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney spoke to his counterparts from Germany and Luxembourg on Wednesday, while senior officials are holding a series of meetings around the EU.

Staff from the Department of the Taoiseach were in Brussels on Wednesday for meetings with the European Commission negotiators, a Government spokesman said. There are also direct contacts with the British.

While there is some optimism in the Irish Government that a breakthrough is coming, there is also determination that movement is needed on the British side

Mr Varadkar on Wednesday told the Dáil that he did not believe Ireland would have to use a veto at an EU summit next month if the British refuse to give adequate commitments on the Border.

Although the EU summit that will formally decide on the question of sufficient progress does not take place until mid-December, Monday’s meeting between Ms May and Mr Juncker is seen as vital because the agreement of EU governments will be needed in advance to allow draft conclusions to be circulated to national governments.

While there is some optimism in the Irish Government that a breakthrough is coming, there is also determination that movement is needed on the British side. Dublin is content that the EU will not pressure Ireland to agree to move to phase two without movement on the Border from the British.

This week, the British government has signalled that it is prepared to meet EU demands for a Brexit bill of about €60 billion. If some final concerns over the citizens’ rights issues are overcome in the next few days, then the Irish Border will be the final outstanding issue.

If Mr Juncker and Mr Barnier are broadly happy with the offer by Ms May on Monday, they will seek the agreement of EU member states to sanction the movement to the second phase of the talks after Christmas.