Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny has cast doubt on expectations that UK Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50, the legal process to divorce from the EU, at the European Council summit on 9 March.
“We had expected that the Prime Minister was going to move Article 50 on a particular date. I think that might be delayed a little,” Kenny said today (23 February) at an appearance with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
The Times reported last month that May planned to officially notify leaders of the remaining 27 EU countries at the 9 March summit in Brussels. The UK government has said May plans to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, but has never confirmed the 9 March date.
UK Brexit Secretary David Davis said last week that he does not “recognise in terms of our timetable” the 9 March date.
Both UK parliamentary houses must approve the Article 50 bill before May can trigger. The House of Commons has already voted and the House of Lords is currently deliberating over the bill but must still debate and approve amendments.
One UK government source said that process made the 9 March date “quite difficult to imagine”.
Kenny told reporters he expected May to indicate whether she will leave the customs union when she triggers Article 50.
The Irish leader has been engulfed in a police scandal and is expected to resign in the coming weeks. Irish media reported today that Kenny would outline when he will leave office after he celebrates St Patrick’s Day on 17 March with US President Trump in Washington.
“I hope to be in attendance at and play our part in setting out our priorities” in the Brexit negotiations, Kenny told reporters in Brussels.
The Irish government has been particularly sensitive to the UK’s position on a customs agreement with the EU, since some control points will likely be set up at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the UK leaves the customs union. The border was previously dotted with military control posts, which were removed as part of the Good Friday peace agreement signed in 1998.
Kenny and other Irish ministers have lobbied in Brussels and several EU capitals to convince other leaders that any Brexit deal must prevent a return to a heavily guarded border between the two countries.
Kenny met today with Juncker and the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to discuss Ireland’s concerns over the divorce.
He has been sounding the alarm since the 23 June 2016 Brexit referendum about possible effects on the border and on Ireland’s close trade relationships with the UK, which could take a hit if May also takes the UK out of the EU customs union and if tariffs are added to goods traded between the EU and the UK. She suggested last month that she is prepared to leave the customs union.
“The issues that concern us really, Northern Ireland, the peace process, the Good Friday agreement, the Common Travel Area, border and citizenship issues, these are completely unique to Ireland and there’s a very special set of circumstances that exist here,” Kenny said today.
The Taoiseach also said he wants the final Brexit deal between the UK and the EU to include a formal clause recognising that Northern Ireland could join the European Union if a majority there votes to unite with the Republic of Ireland. A 56% majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in the June referendum.
“We want that to remain in such a position that the language of what’s contained in the Good Friday Agreement would also be contained in the negotiation outcome. In other words, if at some future time, whenever that might be, if it were to occur that Northern Ireland would have ease of access to join as a member of the European Union again,” Kenny said, comparing such a guarantee to legal provisions that allowed East Germany’s “seamless” reunification with West Germany and EU membership in 1990.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the two countries could unite with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.
Unlike in other parts of Britain, people born in Northern Ireland have the right to claim Irish in addition to UK citizenship, giving them an opportunity to remain EU citizens even after the UK leaves the bloc.
Juncker told reporters he wants to make sure that Brexit does not rattle the 19-year-old peace agreement.
“The Good Friday Agreement is like a poem, it speaks for itself,” Juncker said.
“We want land borders as open as possible,” he added.
Despite the government’s mantra that it will push to avoid a “hard border”, Ireland could be forced by terms in the EU customs agreement to set up some customs checks if the UK leaves to seek trade deals with other countries outside the EU.
The Irish Examiner daily reported last week that the Irish government has been scoping out spots on the border for customs checkpoints, but Kenny has denied the report.