Taoiseach dismisses proposals for bilateral agreement with UK

Theresa May uses EU summit to urge action over rights of UK citizens living in EU

UK prime minister Theresa May at the European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Theresa May has asked European Union leaders to resolve the issue of the rights of British citizens living in the EU and those of EU citizens in Britain soon after Brexit negotiations begin next year.

The British prime minister made her request towards the end of a one-day EU summit in Brussels but the other leaders did not respond. The remaining EU member states have insisted that there should be no negotiations about Brexit before Ms May triggers article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty next year.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that during a short discussion after Ms May left, the other leaders spoke about the organisational arrangements for negotiations but did not deal with substantive issues, such as whether a transitional arrangement should be agreed with Britain for the years immediately following the country’s departure.

“There was no discussion of a transitional period of two years or 10 years or whatever. I did make the point myself that 50 years of legislation, directives and so on would probably be very difficult to deal with inside a two-year period,” Mr Kenny said.


Bilateral agreement

The Taoiseach dismissed a proposal by the House of Lords EU committee for a bilateral trade and customs deal between the UK and Ireland if Britain leaves the customs union after Brexit. “A bilateral deal is not available in the context of Ireland being a member of the European Union negotiating team. We have agreed because of the common travel area which has applied since 1922 that nobody should lose any benefits from that. We’ve made it very clear to all of the leaders the importance of the peace process, our own economy, Interreg funds, and no return to a hard Border,” he said.

“The prime minister – and I spoke to her myself – she’s happy that she will be able to adhere to her timeline of moving article 50 before the end of March. So there wasn’t any discussion about trading relationships or extensions of time or transition periods.”


Before the meeting, there was a dispute over the role the European Parliament will play in article 50 negotiations, with the parliament's president Martin Schultz threatening the "hardest possible Brexit" if MEPs do not have a big enough role. The European Commission will conduct the negotiations on behalf of the EU, based on a mandate agreed by EU leaders. Leaders of the 27 remaining member states were on Thursday night considering a draft text outlining how the negotiations would be organised.

A representative from the member state holding the EU's rotating presidency would form part of the negotiating team and representatives of the European Council president Donald Tusk, would be present at all negotiating sessions, along with commission representatives. EU ambassadors would help ensure that the negotiations remain consistent with the mandate agreed by EU leaders. The European Parliament would be kept "closely and regularly informed" on the progress of the negotiations and would take part in "an exchange of views" before each meeting of the General Affairs Council but the parliament would not have a seat at the negotiating table. Under article 50, the European Parliament, along with the European Council, will have to approve any final Brexit deal.

“If we are not adequately involved, we may not be able to give our consent,” Mr Schulz told EU leaders at the start of Thursday’s summit. “And in this situation, the UK would face the hardest Brexit possible. It is absolutely unacceptable for us.”

Common approach

Although no formal Brexit negotiations will begin until Ms May invokes article 50, which she has promised to do before the end of March, EU member states are expected to start co-ordinating a common approach to the talks early in the new year. Under article 50, the EU and Britain can spend up to two years negotiating an agreement, setting out the arrangements for Britain’s withdrawal, “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.

EU officials expect the final deal to outline the shape of Britain’s future relationship with the EU, including issues such as a possible trade deal. A trade deal could take a number of years to negotiate, during which time Britain and the EU could agree to operate transitional arrangements.

The terms of such arrangements are likely to prove controversial in Britain, particularly if they oblige the UK to continue to accept free movement of people, to pay into the EU budget and to respect rulings of the European Court of Justice for a number of years after Brexit.

Arriving in Brussels on Thursday, Ms May said she was pleased that the other 27 leaders were planning for Brexit talks. “I welcome the fact that the other leaders will be meeting to discuss Brexit tonight as we are going to invoke article 50, trigger the negotiations by the end of March next year. It’s right that the other leaders prepare for those negotiations as we have been preparing. We will be leaving the EU, we want that to be a smooth and orderly a process as possible, it’s not only in our interests but in the interests of the rest of Europe as well,” she told reporters.

The prime minister did not respond to questions about a report by Britain's ambassador to the EU, Ivan Rogers, suggesting that it could take up to a decade for Britain to negotiate a new trade deal with the EU after Brexit.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times