Tusk flies to Dublin in attempt to ‘unlock’ the Irish border file

Donald Tusk on 21 October 2017. [Council]

European Council President Donald Tusk will fly to Dublin on Friday (1 December) for talks with Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, in an attempt to resolve the Irish border issue, probably the thorniest one holding up a Brexit deal with Britain.

A spokesman for Tusk, who chairs EU summits and is overseeing the Brexit process, said in a tweet on Thursday that the 4pm meeting would “discuss #Brexit and how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland”.

Britain’s Times newspaper, without citing a source, said Britain had this week proposed to devolve more powers to the government of its province of Northern Ireland so that it could ensure regulations there did not diverge from EU rules holding south of the border across the island.

Avoiding a hard customs border which might rekindle sectarian violence in the north has been a key demand of the EU and Ireland, who want Britain to give details of how it will ensure “no regulatory divergence” after Brexit in March 2019.

Tusk last week set an “absolute deadline” of Monday for British Prime Minister Theresa May to deliver “sufficient progress” in improving London’s divorce offer if EU leaders are to authorise negotiations on a future free trade deal and on a largely status-quo, two-year transition period after Brexit.

Waiting for May, Brussels eyes December Brexit deal

When Theresa May visits Brussels tomorrow (24 November), EU negotiators will be listening intently for signs the British prime minister is preparing to risk a domestic backlash and raise her offer to secure a Brexit deal in December.

May will hold talks in Brussels on Monday with EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker and his chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. If that meeting produces “sufficient progress” on three key EU conditions – a financial settlement, rights of expatriate citizens and the Irish border – then leaders could give a green light to trade talks at a summit on 14-15 December.

Barnier said on Wednesday the summit would be able to discuss a transition period and that the EU would define a “framework” next year of the “new partnership” with Britain that would follow the transition.

May has insisted she wants any new offers to be met with simultaneous assurances from the EU that it will maintain the open trading relationship which businesses are demanding to know soon if they are to maintain investment levels in Britain.

EU officials and diplomats have in recent weeks been scoping out terms for a transition and various kinds of free trade agreements – work intended to speed up the start of talks on those issues in anticipation of agreement to open the second phase of Brexit negotiations at the December summit.

The Brief, powered by Eurogas – Squaring the circle of the Irish border

One of the three big issues in the first phase of Brexit talks, next to the financial settlement and citizens’ rights, is the problem of the Irish border – the UK’s only physical contact with the rest of the EU.

The precise timing of a formal offer of a transition, which EU officials have long said will essentially mean Britain staying in all EU programmes but without a vote, is unclear but could come as early as January, officials have said – though it would only be binding once the divorce deal is signed and ratified by both parliaments, probably in early 2019.

Negotiations on a future trade deal are likely to take some weeks to get going after the December summit, as the EU will first have to go through a process of drafting guidelines for negotiators – although the basic outline of what might be on offer is already fairly plain.