Brexit summit due to begin without progress on Irish border

17 October 2018 7:29am
EU flags in the wind

16 October 2018. By Matthew Holehouse, Zosia Wanat and Michael Acton

Brexit’s “moment of truth” this week may well pass without any decisive progress, with negotiators still failing to agree on the issue of the Irish border backstop.

A European Council summit of national leaders on Thursday is the theoretical deadline for EU and UK negotiators to reach a withdrawal agreement, to allow enough time for various parliaments to approve the deal before March 29, 2019. A planned Brexit summit in November suggests that deadline could slip, but officials still hope for significant progress this week.

The council’s president, Donald Tusk, said today that he would ask UK Prime Minister Theresa May to make “concrete proposals” to break the impasse, after Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab shot down a draft agreement on Sunday because it would be unacceptable to UK lawmakers.

“For a breakthrough to take place, as well as goodwill, we need new facts,” Tusk told reporters.

Negotiators were locked in intense discussions for most of last week, ending on Sunday. But they failed to agree a backstop solution to the Irish border — effectively, a last-resort guarantee that there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which will come into effect if no better solution is agreed during a planned transition period until the end of 2020.

“Clearly we’re not in a place we wanted to be in October,” a senior EU diplomat said. “The spirit of talks on Sunday didn’t promise any progress during the summit.”

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told journalists that officials need “more time” to make the “decisive progress” needed to reach an agreement. “We’re not there yet.”

— UK politics —

Sunday’s talks collapsed following the intervention of Raab, who regarded a draft agreement as unsellable in the UK parliament.

Theresa May is under intense pressure from her ministers and lawmakers to reject any plan that would introduce new barriers to trade between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland, or would see the whole of the UK in a customs union with the bloc permanently.

The agreement under preparation in Brussels would have seen Northern Ireland remain in the EU’s customs union and elements of the single market under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, with an aspiration to place the whole of the UK in a customs union under the terms of the final settlement to be agreed after March 2019.

The UK’s primary concern is in defining a mechanism for how the backstop period will end to avoid becoming trapped in it “indefinitely,” May’s spokesman said, adding that the cabinet discussed the Irish backstop for more than two hours today.

Yesterday May told UK lawmakers that the EU proposal — a “backstop to the backstop” — was unacceptable.

In an address to the House of Commons, she said a deal was achievable, but laid out three conditions that the UK wishes to see. It’s not clear how far these contradict the text that was on the table on Sunday.

First, she said, the UK can’t accept any solution that “threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom.” She has previously used similar language to reject EU proposals to keep Northern Ireland only in the bloc’s customs union — though May didn’t explicitly rule that out yesterday.

Second, the UK needs assurances that the backstop will be temporary, May said, without naming a deadline.

Finally, the UK needs a mechanism to ensure it cannot be “kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely” if the EU fails to negotiate in good faith on a future relationship that would obviate the need for the backstop.

But her own plans for a temporary backstop that keeps the whole UK in the customs union, rather than just Northern Ireland, has hit a procedural stumbling block in the limits of Article 50, the EU treaty clause governing a member state’s withdrawal.

EU officials argue that Article 50 cannot serve as the legal basis for a long-term relationship with the UK and EU, as this has to be addressed post-divorce. A pan-UK customs union also raises sticky questions around the treatment of the EU’s other trade relationships.

— Follow the leaders —

Leaders of the 27 EU countries, minus May, will be briefed by Barnier over a working dinner tomorrow on the state of play, ahead of their formal meeting on Thursday.

Before that, May will get an opportunity to address her EU peers for about 15 minutes to present her perspective on the impasse.

The leaders must decide whether to give the go-ahead for an extraordinary summit in November, an idea floated by Tusk last month.

They might not do so if they decide there’s been too little progress. “The extraordinary November meeting is still not a given,” the senior diplomat said.

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