EU leaders warn next phase of Brexit talks will be far tougher

EU figures point to slow pace of process so far and large volume of work remaining

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a news conference at the end of the European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels on December 15th. Photograph: ReuterS/Phil Noble

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a news conference at the end of the European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels on December 15th. Photograph: ReuterS/Phil Noble


EU leaders have warned that the next phase of Brexit negotiations will be significantly more difficult than the first phase, which was formally completed at Friday’s summit in Brussels.

As the EU prepares to open negotiations on the future relationship – including the outlines of a trade agreement – with the UK in the new year, leaders warned in public statements on Friday that the next phase would be far more challenging. Senior officials privately amplified the leaders’ views.

Several EU leaders, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, also pointed to the extremely demanding timetables to have agreements concluded ahead of the UK’s scheduled departure from the union in March 2019.

Echoing the words of German chancellor Angela Merkel, the president of the Council of EU leaders Donald Tusk told the final press conference that the process would now be “dramatically different” .

“The second phase will be far more demanding that the first,” Mr Tusk said.

Senior EU figures also pointed to the slow pace of the process so far, the large volume of work remaining and the extremely demanding timetables.

One official pointed out that the Ceta agreement with Canada – 1,598 pages of legal text – had taken seven years to negotiate. The EU-UK negotiations had laboured for months and produced only 15 pages in the joint accord.

‘Stitched in’

In his public statements the Taoiseach reiterated Ireland’s guarantees from the British government that there would be no hard border on the island, and said the commitment would be “stitched in” to the legally-binding agreement to be drawn up in the coming months.

However, there was widespread acknowledgement in Brussels that the British appear to have given contradictory assurances – to leave the single market and the customs unions and to maintain the existing Border arrangements.

Commenting specifically on the “no hard border” commitments on Ireland, one senior EU official said: “This will remain one of the very, very difficult issues – because of the issue itself, and because it exposes the contradictions in the UK position.”

In particular the official pointed to the British red lines on the single market and customs union.

At the end-of-summit press conference the Taoiseach said that maintaining free trade between the EU and the UK after the UK left the single market and the customs union was “quite frankly a circle that is very hard to square”.

The future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK should be agreed “in principle” by March 2019, when the UK left, the Taoiseach said.

“There’s a view around the table that we shouldn’t be spending the transition phase negotiating the new EU-UK that people know what they’re transitioning to,” the Taoiseach added.


He acknowledged that the timetables were “difficult” and “challenging”. However he said the transition period and the withdrawal agreement should be concluded by October of next year.

EU leaders also called on the UK to elaborate urgently on its vision for the future partnership.

Both the Taoiseach and Ministers of State for Europe Helen McEntee, who accompanied him to the summit, were at pains to stress that several other issues, not just Brexit, were discussed at the summit, and there were clashes between the leaders on the subject of migration from Africa to the countries of southern Europe.