Theresa May is demanding that Brussels offer “precise” guarantees that Britain and the EU will enjoy frictionless trade after Brexit, in an attempt to unlock a withdrawal agreement covering the Irish border.
The British prime minister is prepared to make concessions to Brussels on the Irish border, but she fears talks could yet founder unless the EU commits to a deal on the future relationship with the UK that involves no barriers to trade. “We have to jump together,” said one British official.
The UK is now seeking to make progress on a package involving the withdrawal agreement and Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU as negotiations enter a decisive phase.
The question of how to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is at the centre of Brexit talks in Brussels, ahead of a crucial European Council meeting next week.
Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist party which props up Mrs May’s minority government, arrived in Brussels late on Monday for talks with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
Mrs Foster said: “The United Kingdom single market must be protected with no new borders between Northern Ireland and Great Britain being created. From day one this has been the DUP’s only red line.”
The UK and the EU are now engaged in delicate choreography intended to clear the way for a positive European Council on Wednesday and Thursday next week, leading to finalisation of a Brexit deal at a summit in mid-November.
Mrs May will try to unlock talks on the so-called “Irish backstop”— a guarantee by both sides there will be no return to a hard border in Ireland — by meeting EU demands that Northern Ireland remain aligned to Brussels’ single market rules after Brexit.
Mr Barnier for his part will say that although this might in theory mean regulatory checks at ports on goods moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, in practice they could be conducted in factories or shops.
The next crucial element of the Brexit deal sought by Mrs May would see the EU agree to a “temporary” customs union between the whole of the UK and the 27-member bloc, to eliminate tariffs until a future trade agreement was in place.
Finally Mrs May hopes the EU will allay Mrs Foster’s concerns that the “Irish backstop” could see a permanent regulatory split in the UK.
She is pushing for a joint statement establishing that the long term relationship between Britain and the EU would involve no barriers to trade.
Mrs May’s spokesman told reporters on Monday. “I will just make that point . . . that there can be no withdrawal agreement without a precise future framework [on trade].”
Mr Barnier’s top Brexit official, Sabine Weyand, told ambassadors from the EU27 on Friday the bloc would enter a 10-day negotiating “tunnel” after which it would emerge with “something” on the withdrawal agreement and the future trade relationship.
Although the full Brexit package is not expected to be finished in time for next week’s European Council, officials are trying to complete the withdrawal treaty, the Irish backstop, and potentially parts of a statement on future relations. A draft of the joint statement is expected by early next week.