Taoiseach ‘on pessimistic side’ regarding Brexit trade deal

European Commission chief and British PM to meet as both sides struggle to avert failure

Both Angela Merkel and Michael Gove said there was still chance of a Brexit deal with Gove ruling out "a deal at any price" and Merkel stressing the "integrity of the EU's market must be preserved." Video: Reuters

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European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and British prime minister Boris Johnson will meet for dinner in Brussels on Wednesday evening amid warnings from both sides that Brexit talks could be heading for failure.

In Dublin, Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned the Dáil that the situation was “very serious” and that the House could soon be “discussing preparations for a no-deal Brexit”.

Later, Mr Martin told The Irish Times he welcomed the “positive and helpful” agreement yesterday between the EU and UK on the implementation of last year’s deal to avoid a hard border in Ireland. But he said he was “on the pessimistic side” about consensus on a free trade agreement in the coming days.

And he told the Dáil that people should not “over-interpret” the agreement on the North as a sign that a trade deal is imminent.

Some sources in Dublin believe that in making the agreement on the North, the British government has “boxed off” the incoming Biden administration’s concerns about Northern Ireland, clearing the way for a US-UK trade deal even if there is a no-deal Brexit.

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Downing Street said the prime minister would use the meeting with Dr von der Leyen tonight “to continue discussions on the future relationship” between Britain and the EU, while the European Commission said it would not be a negotiating session.

Chief negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost have outlined for the two leaders the remaining differences on fisheries, level playing field guarantees of fair competition and how to enforce any deal.

Britain’s cabinet office minister Michael Gove will outline to MPs on Wednesday the details of the agreement on implementing the Northern Ireland protocol. Earlier, the EU and UK declared they had reached agreement on “all issues” regarding how to practically implement arrangements for Northern Ireland designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and signed last year.

This allowed the British government to announce it would scrap controversial clauses of legislation that would have broken the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU last year, and which the Irish Government warned would have made a deal impossible.

The two sides have agreed details of an EU presence in Northern Ireland to oversee how British officials administer checks on goods coming from Britain and elsewhere.

Goods ‘not at risk’

The British government said they had agreed on how to determine criteria for goods to be considered “not at risk” of entering the EU when moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, the exemption of agricultural and fish subsidies from state aid rules, and the finalisation of the list of chairpersons of the arbitration panel for a dispute settlement mechanism.

Meanwhile, the largest ferry company operating on the Irish Sea has urged the EU to introduce a six-month “implementation phase” for post-Brexit customs because many businesses are not ready.

Stena Line, the Swedish company whose ferries cross the Irish Sea more than 250 times a week, said there remains “many unanswered questions”, despite the EU and UK agreeing on Tuesday on how the Northern Ireland protocol for Irish Sea checks will operate under the Brexit deal.

“The systems and infrastructure required for customs checks in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will also not be finalised in time for January 1st, 2021,” said Stena Line’s executive director and Brexit spokesman Ian Hampton.

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