Brexit talks reach first crunch point

Balancing different objectives not easy for Government given unrealistic and volatile nature of UK position

The Government now faces a hectic few weeks of negotiation in the run-up to the next summit of EU leaders in mid-December. Central to this will be whether it judges that it has received sufficient assurances from the UK government about the Irish Border to agree that the Brexit talks can move to the next stage. This is made more complicated for Ireland by our desire to see the talks progress and come to a satisfactory conclusion, safeguarding our wider trade interests with the UK.

So-called Irish issues – including the Border – are one of a group on which "sufficient progress" must be made before the talks can continue on to phase two. At issue are what assurances Ireland will insist on and what London is prepared to offer. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said yesterday that Ireland wanted a commitment that there will be no "regulatory divergence" between the two parts of Ireland post-Brexit, but the UK will find it difficult to sign up to this.

The only clear-cut way for there to be no divergence in trade and commerce rules and regulations between the North and South is either for the UK as a whole to remain part of the EU trading bloc, or for the North to do so in some kind of special arrangement. Either of these would largely solve the Border problem. But both have been ruled out by the UK. So there is no easy solution to the gap appearing between Dublin and London.

The Conservative government wants the issue parked until later in the talks. But the Irish Government is nervous. So far the British commitment goes no further than promising to do everything possible to avoid a “hard Border”. Ireland wants a clearer and more concrete assurance before the talks move on, aware of the risk of the Border becoming a pawn in wider talks on a trade deal.

The move to the next stage of the Brexit talks must be agreed by consensus, so Ireland has some cards to play. However, the Government is also conscious of the need to progress the talks, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney referring yesterday to the 38,000 Irish firms trading with the UK each week.

Ireland needs a smooth outcome to the talks, and as long a transition period as possible after Britain leaves the EU to allow new arrangements to be finalised and enacted. A breakdown in the talks and the UK crashing out without a deal would also mean significant economic threats for us.

Balancing the different objectives will not be easy for the Government, particularly given the unrealistic and volatile nature of the UK position. It also remains to be seen if progress can be made on other issues, notably the scale of the UK’s financial commitment to the EU. The Brexit talks are reaching their first crunch point and a vital few weeks lie ahead.