BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union threw its weight behind Ireland in Brexit negotiations on Friday as a looming parliamentary defeat for the Irish government threatened to disrupt Britain’s timetable for a deal with Brussels.
A standoff between Dublin and London over how much detail Britain must give on its plans to avoid a disruptive hard border in Northern Ireland after it leaves the EU could thwart Prime Minister Theresa May’s hopes of securing EU agreement next month to open talks on a post-Brexit free trade deal.
Arriving for a Brussels summit with leaders of ex-Soviet neighbors, May said she would press European Council President Donald Tusk to pledge to open the trade talks at the same time as she makes the improved divorce offer the EU wants.
But attention among EU negotiators has swung to Ireland and concerns that an election triggered by a confidence motion next week in Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s government could stop him signing off on any EU accord with London and so scramble a carefully choreographed three-week run-in to a deal.
“The Irish issue is very worrying. The chances of sufficient progress in December were only 50-50. Now maybe less,” an official handling Brexit talks from one of the other 27 EU states told Reuters on the sidelines of Friday’s summit.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier met Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who was standing in for Varadkar at the Brussels talks, and reassured him the other 26 EU member states stood behind Ireland’s demands that Britain must do more to explain how it will keep goods and people flowing freely across the new EU-UK land border that will divide the island.
“Strong solidarity with Ireland,” Barnier wrote on Twitter. “Irish issues are EU issues.”
Coveney tweeted back: “Thank u @MichelBarnier reaffirming EU solidarity with Ireland on #Brexit.”
The Irish border is one of three priority conditions the EU has set, as well as a financial settlement from Britain and a deal on the rights of EU citizens living there.
Irish refusal to accept that there has been “sufficient progress” on the border issue would block the whole plan to move to trade talks after a summit on Dec. 14-15. Coveney, who accused opponents of being irresponsible in moving to bring down the government over an unrelated issue, said Ireland would not agree to open trade talks if it was unhappy over the border.
May’s Northern Irish, pro-Brexit allies, on whom she depends for a slim parliamentary majority, accused Dublin of trying to force Northern Ireland, or the whole of the United Kingdom, to stay in a customs union with the EU, depriving it of setting its own freedom to set commercial regulations.
EU officials say the best way to avoid a “hard border” is to keep regulations the same – whether only in Northern Ireland or across the UK. Britain and the Northern Irish DUP have rejected the former because it would divide Northern Ireland from the British mainland. Brexit campaigners say Britain should not have to follow EU rules.
May said she would talk to summit chair Tusk about “positive negotiations we’re having, looking ahead to the future deep and special partnership that I want with the European Union”.
“What I’m clear about is that we must step forward together,” she told reporters before her 4:30 p.m. (1530 GMT) meeting with the European Council president. “This is for both the UK and for the European Union to move on to the next stage.”
EU officials are waiting for signs from May that she is ready to strike a deal on finances and other issues but British officials say she is unlikely to make a major move right now.
May has said she wants a guarantee of opening trade talks if she increases Britain’s financial offer. EU officials say Barnier is working on a “joint report” with London that would confirm in public the results of the first stage of bargaining.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he thought talks were making progress and he would see after his own meeting in Brussels with May on Dec. 4 whether there was sufficient progress to recommend that leaders, who meet again at the summit on Dec. 14-15, should launch future trade talks.
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