Ireland warns it will block deal on Brexit without a border agreement with the UK

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 4:44am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 4:44am

Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar issued a stark warning that progress of Brexit negotiations was at great risk of even further delay, during a day of stinging public rebukes for Theresa May as she met sceptical EU leaders at a Swedish summit.

“I can’t say in any honesty that it’s close – on the Irish issue or on the financial settlement,” he said after a frosty bilateral meeting with May.

Varadkar said he would not be prepared to back progress of the Brexit negotiations to trade talks at the summit in December without a formal written guarantee there would be no hard border in Ireland. Britain, he said, “wants a divorce, but an open relationship the day after”.

At the summit in Gothenburg, the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, gave the UK government an ultimatum that progress needed to be made on the Irish border and the financial settlement.

Tusk also hit back at suggestions by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, that the UK needed to see more compromise from Brussels: “I appreciate Mr Davis’s English sense of humour.”

May spoke to several European leaders on the fringes of the social summit including France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Lofven. Government sources admitted it was clear from the meetings that more work was needed to make progress, though they insisted the tone was constructive.

Leaving the summit in Gothenburg, May told reporters she agreed that more needed to be done to advance the negotiations. “But we are clear and I am clear that what we need to do is move forwards together and that’s how we can ensure that we are going to get the best deal for the UK and for the EU,” the prime minister said.

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Tusk said the UK needed to do more on the two key issues. “While good progress on citizens’ rights is being made, we need to see much more progress on Ireland and on the financial settlement,” he told a press conference in Gothenburg.

He said he had told May in an earlier bilateral meeting that “this progress needs to happen at the beginning of December at the latest”, and that he hoped some movement will have been made by the time the two leaders meet again next Friday.

The president said the EU was ready to move on to the second phase of the Brexit talks, which will discuss the future trade relationship and transition period. These are due to begin, with the approval of the council, at its next summit in Brussels on December 14-15. Later he told reporters he was “cautious but optimistic” that talks could still progress.

Tusk’s deadline of the beginning of December will give May some crucial extra time to build consensus in Europe and around her own cabinet table, particularly over the financial settlement.

Varadkar’s warning was the most blunt, though the EU is likely to take the lead from Ireland when it assesses whether enough genuine progress has been made on the issue of the border with Northern Ireland, one of the three key topics which must be agreed before talks progress to trade.

“We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past,” Varadkar said before his meeting with May. “We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”

Leaving the summit several hours later, Varadkar said he was not satisfied with the progress. “After 40 years of marriage, most of them good, now Britain wants a divorce, but an open relationship the day after,” he told Sky News. “We have heard now for 18 months … that the UK does not want a hard border in Ireland. But after 18 months of the right language we need to understand how that can be achieved in law.”

“We don’t have a counter-proposal from the UK government yet which makes any sense, but we would certainly welcome one,” he said.

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