Irish Border Spat Complicates Brexit Transition Talks

The U.K. has significant ground to make up on the Irish border issue before next week’s summit where it aims to clinch a deal on a Brexit transition period, European diplomats said.

While both sides are keen have a deal signed off by EU leaders at the meeting, the gap on the Irish question remains wide, according to three diplomats, who asked not to be identified as talks are ongoing. If the EU isn’t satisfied with British proposals for avoiding a hard border, they might attach more conditions to a transition agreement, one of the officials said.

U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis said he’s aiming to turn the draft exit terms into a legal text and to reaching a “crucial” deal on the transitional period during two days of talks from March 22. On balance the two sides will probably manage to bridge their differences over the remaining days, one of the diplomats said.

Germany is keen to give the U.K. transition, which will extend the terms of the U.K.’s single market and customs union membership beyond exit day on March 29, 2019, the diplomat said, though France views transition as a prize to be awarded only if the U.K. makes significant progress on outstanding issues like the Irish border.

The need for progress on the Irish border issue before approval of the transition period was agreed by diplomats from the bloc’s 27 remaining countries at a meeting on Thursday morning, according to two EU officials.

May Says No

The EU earlier this month published a draft withdrawal text which sets out in detail a so-called fallback option for managing the frontier on the island of Ireland after Brexit. Under that proposal, Northern Ireland would remain aligned with the Republic of Ireland if a future trade deal between the EU and U.K. isn’t comprehensive enough to avoid a hard border.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May instantly rejected that suggestion saying no British leader could accept it. EU officials are now waiting to see what the U.K. has to propose instead, the diplomat said.

Brexit negotiators are due to hold a month of intensive talks aimed at ending the deadlock over the Irish border. A dedicated new strand in the negotiations — which will involve the U.K, the European Commission and the Irish government — will get under way on March 26 and last until April 18, officials familiar with the plans said Thursday.

Possible Caveats

Ultimately, it may come down to the caveats the EU attaches to any transition agreement next week. If the EU is happy with progress — and it hasn’t set down specific tests on Ireland — transition will be agreed in a clear and unambiguous manner. If not, qualifications might be added, such as clearly signposted reviews, according to one of the diplomats.

Either way, it will be made clear that the final agreement, including on transition, will be linked to a satisfactory resolution to the Irish question, the official said.

British negotiators are convinced they will get a transition deal agreed at next week’s summit, despite Irish concerns. They insist that holding up a deal because of the border issue would be irrational since the question can’t be fully resolved until the future trade and customs arrangements are discussed later on in the process.

Credit: Bloomberg