Ireland ‘disappointed’ following Theresa May’s Brussels talks

Theresa May, Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier, Martin Selmayr and other officials on 4 December 2017 in the Berlaymont building. [Commission]

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he was “surprised and disappointed” on Monday (4 December) after Britain failed to agree to a draft deal with EU leaders on the status of the Irish border after Brexit.

Britain and the EU failed to strike a Brexit divorce deal during talks in Brussels on Monday but said they were “confident” of reaching an accord later this week.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker fell short of a breakthrough, despite encouraging progress on the thorny issue of the Irish border.

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Many’s the time the EU has seen months of deadlocked negotiations produce a last-minute breakthrough. News of progress from Theresa May’s fateful talks with EU chiefs in Brussels on Monday may, therefore, not come as a major surprise.

The EU says Britain must make sufficient progress on key divorce issues – Ireland, Britain’s financial bill for leaving the bloc, and the rights of EU nationals in Britain – to allow the opening of trade and transition talks at a summit on 15 December.

“Despite our best efforts and the significant progress we and our teams have made in the past days on the remaining withdrawal issues, it was not possible to reach a complete agreement today,” Juncker said at a joint news conference with May.

“This is not a failure… I am very confident that we will reach an agreement in the course of this week.”

Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, said May was a “tough negotiator and not an easy one”.

May said differences remained on a “couple of issues”.

“But we will reconvene before the end of the week, and I am also confident we will conclude this positively,” May said.

‘Getting closer’

The failure of the talks came despite European Council President Donald Tusk saying just hours earlier that negotiators were “getting closer to sufficient progress” at the December summit, and that he was “encouraged” by a phone call with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

Tusk – who was to see May later in Brussels, and who cancelled a Middle East trip because of the “crucial” talks – said recently that Monday was the “absolute deadline” for an improved offer from London.

Irish broadcaster RTE said Britain was ready to keep the EU customs and single market rules for Northern Ireland in order to meet Dublin’s insistence that Brexit should not bring back a “hard border” and threaten a peace process that ended decades of sectarian tensions.

“I am surprised and disappointed that the British government now appears not to be in a position to conclude what was agreed earlier today,” Varadkar said at a press conference in Dublin.

“I accept that the Prime Minister (Theresa May) has asked for more time, and I know that she faces many challenges, and I acknowledge that she is negotiating in good faith,” he added.

Dublin’s demands on the status of the border with British-ruled Northern Ireland have been the key stumbling block recently, with fears that the talks could even collapse amid tensions between the two neighbours.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, who held a mid-afternoon phone call with May, had earlier taken to the airwaves after reports emerged of the draft agreement that would give Northern Ireland a different regulatory status from the rest of Britain.

“Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” Foster, whose party supported Brexit, told reporters in televised comments in Belfast.

“We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom,” she said.

Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is set to leave the European Union under Brexit while the Republic of Ireland remains an EU member.

Any deal stipulating different regulations for the province from mainland Britain would be a major concession to Dublin’s demands for guarantees that the border will remain free-flowing after Brexit.

The fate of the proposed border deal now looks uncertain.

Varadkar said he had spoken to Juncker following the failure to reach an agreement “and he has confirmed to me that Ireland’s position remains Europe’s position”.

He added: “I still hope that this matter can be concluded in the coming days as agreed.”

The Irish prime minister urged May to listen to other parties in Northern Ireland.

The province voted in the referendum to remain in the EU by an 11-point margin.

“We need to have regard to what all of the parties think in Northern Ireland and also what the majority of people think,” he said.

Monday’s events also riled other parts of Britain that voted to stay in the EU.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon said she had already put forward detailed proposals for Scotland to remain in the single market, “which were previously rejected by the UK government as unworkable”.

“Indeed, if Northern Ireland is effectively kept in the single market it makes it all the more vital for Scotland’s national and economic interests that we are too,” she said in statement.

Meanwhile leaders of devolved assemblies in Wales, whose population voted narrowly in favour of leaving the EU, and London made similar arguments on Monday.