No Brexit ‘phase two’ talks before December, EU ministers insist

Simon Coveney welcomes ‘very strong language on Ireland’ in EU summit documents

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: says pace of “divorce” talks inadequate. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: says pace of “divorce” talks inadequate. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA


EU European affairs ministers on Tuesday made clear that it will be December at the earliest before the EU will talk to the UK about trade and their post-Brexit future relationship.

There will now be three extra rounds of talks ahead of that meeting to accelerate the process.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney expressed delight at what he called “very strong language on Ireland” in the “conclusions” for this week’s EU summit, which were approved by the ministers preparing the summit.

The ministers fully accepted the assessment made by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, of the inadequate pace of the “divorce” talks. And the draft conclusions on those remain unchanged – they include a clear requirement on the UK to come up with what Mr Coveney on Tuesday called a “road map” on how the UK’s repeatedly professed interest in a frictionless Border on the island can be achieved.

The conclusions hold out a small carrot to the UK in suggesting that “sufficient progress” – the bar they have set for progression to second-phase discussions on trade and the future relationship – may be made by the December summit, and in mandating Mr Barnier to prepare negotiating guidelines for phase-two talks to approve then.

But ministers, including Mr Coveney, were adamant that there could be no question of talking at this stage to the UK about transition or trade issues.

Mr Coveney acknowledged that all “phase-one issues don’t need to be fully resolved, and a lot of Irish issues won’t be concluded” in meeting the requirement of “sufficient progress” to pass to phase-two talks. But the UK’s proposals to date for dealing with the Border in its customs and Northern Ireland negotiating papers were inadequate, he said.

“The Border was always an issue for phase one,” he said. The EU would need to see substantial progress – although the UK has made very strong statements, “a road map to achieve that is what is required”. Phase-two solutions were likely to be part of any solution, he said, but there was a need for clarity, and a plan to get there.

The Minister said there had been good progress on the Common Travel Area, but that safeguarding the Belfast Agreement was “a lot more complex than many understood”. North-South co-operation in up to 140 areas is based on common membership of the EU and hence a common regulatory framework of EU law in areas as varied as animal health regulations and water quality.

They had to preserve that and deal with what happens in the future as EU legislation evolves.

Prime minister Theresa May will again be given an opportunity to make her case to EU leaders at this week’s summit. On Friday morning she will address the meeting before she leaves for London and the summit reconvenes with 27 members.  

Special status

Separately, special status for Northern Ireland, either inside the EU or with a specially designed relationship with the bloc, is both legally possible and politically desirable, according to a European Parliament report to be launched in Brussels on Wednesday.

The independent legal report, compiled by the Doughty Street barristers’ chambers in London and commissioned by the left-green group of which Sinn Féin is a member, provides examples of legal frameworks that could be applied to the North.

“There is a long history of the EU being willing to agree to a range of tailored, differentiated packages with other individual states or parts of states in order to reflect particular legal, political, historical, economic and/or geographical circumstances,” the report finds.

The obstacles to special status for the North are not legal, but political, it finds. The report details a number of cases in which special status and unique arrangements are recognised in EU and national law.

“Special status for Northern Ireland inside the EU is legally possible, subject to political negotiations and decision-making between the EU and the UK,” it finds. “There is a range of possible solutions which have not yet been properly explored by the UK Government.”

Displaced institutions

Meanwhile, the General Affairs Council also on Tuesday heard member states pitch to each other for the location of two institutions to be displaced from London by Brexit: the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Union. Ireland still has its hat in the ring for both. A decision will be taken, under a complex voting system, at the GAC meeting in November.

Earlier, in the debate on the digital economy, Ireland, which was represented by Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee, was joined by up to 14 other states in pressing for a dilution of the proposed conclusions on EU initiatives on digital taxation.

The State is seeking to amend the final document of the summit to make it clear that the union will walk in step on the issue with the OECD, which is due to report in the spring. France and Germany are pressing for the EU to go ahead with its own proposals.

Ireland was supported by the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the UK, Cyprus, Malta, Denmark and Sweden.

 The Irish are also seeking a small change in the summit language on the development of European security co-operation, known as Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco), which puts flesh on treaty provisions that allow for the union, or subgroups of it, to organise a range of military tasks together.

It is due to be launched by the end of the year, and Dublin argues that a commitment to “flexible mechanisms” would make it easier for all member states, Ireland included, to play a full part in it.