Ministers stay away as Brexit officials resume talks on Irish border

The UK and EU negotiating teams sit down in Brussels. [European Commission]

EU and UK officials cut short their summer holidays to resume Brexit talks in Brussels on Thursday (16 August). The two days of technical meetings will focus on the Northern Irish border and future trade relations but officials indicated that there was little chance of a breakthrough.

New Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier did not attend the talks.

The chances of a ‘no deal’ Brexit appear to have dramatically increased over a turbulent summer during which UK Prime Minister Theresa May saw her Brexit and Foreign ministers – both senior Brexiteers – resign from her government.

The question of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has dragged the Article 50 talks to a standstill and now threatens to derail the UK’s withdrawal agreement and future trade relations with the EU.

Meanwhile, Theresa May’s White Paper on future relations between the EU and UK prompted a backlash from a large faction of ‘hard Brexiteers’ in her Conservative party, who argue that it would require the UK to continue to abide by single market laws adopted by the EU.

Under the proposed withdrawal agreement with the EU, London would settle around €39 billion of EU budget commitments in exchange for a 21 month transition period following its formal exit from the bloc in March 2019.

“I have no earthly clue on how they will resolve the Irish border issue,” said professor Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank.

“The UK government thinks that the longer this runs on, the more Irish government is likely to back down.”

UK officials argue that the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ agreed by the EU-27, under which the island of Ireland would effectively remain part of the EU’s customs union, would not solve the question of the hard border.

“We haven’t been making much progress (on Northern Ireland),” a UK official conceded to EURACTIV.

In the meantime, Jeremy Hunt, who was appointed as the UK’s foreign minister following Boris Johnson’s resignation in protest to the White Paper in July, has spent the summer touring European capitals and warning of the prospect of a chaotic ‘no deal’ Brexit, hoping they would persuade the European Commission team led by Barnier to adopt a more generous approach towards the UK.

Speaking during a visit with Latvian government ministers on Wednesday, Hunt said that the UK wanted a “deep and special partnership” with the EU, urging the EU-27 to be “united around a position of pragmatism and partnership with the UK.”

For its part, the EU executive set out some of the main risks of a ‘no deal’ Brexit to citizens and businesses in a 16-page document published last month.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group (BSG) on Thursday described itself as “deeply concerned by reports that the UK Home Office is considering processing applications for “settled status” by EU citizens on an alphabetical basis.”

The group of MEPs, led by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, said that “such an approach would be complicated, arbitrary and could create unnecessary confusion and uncertainty for millions of EU citizens already living in limbo”.

They added that “those at the end of the alphabet may not get their status confirmed until the end of 2020 or later, which would be intolerable and contrary to the spirit of the assurances we have previously received.”

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