U.K. Floats Open-Ended Irish Veto to Break Brexit Impasse

Updated on
  • U.K. suggests Ireland could maintain leverage until talks end
  • Irish reject approach, remain firm on written guarantees
Oliver Harvey, U.K. macro strategist at Deutsche Bank, discusses the state of Brexit negotiations.

U.K. officials tried to accelerate Brexit negotiations by suggesting that rather than wielding its veto next month, Ireland could hold fire and block a final accord if it wished, three people familiar with the talks said.

Avoiding a hard border in Ireland is one of three key issues requiring “sufficient progress” before the European Union will allow efforts to move on to Britain’s future relationship with the bloc. Before that, the Irish government, itself battling for survival, wants a written commitment from the U.K. on the border question, a demand Britain is reluctant to concede.

Instead, the U.K. raised the possibility of a so-called “process veto” for Ireland, a stipulation that when it comes to a withdrawal agreement, nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed, according to European officials, who declined to be named because negotiations are ongoing. 

Britain is trying to advance the negotiations to discuss a future trade deal at a summit of EU leaders next month, after failing to achieve that goal in October. Prime Minister Theresa May has already prepared a higher offer for Britain’s exit payment, and the two sides have made progress on the rights of EU citizens, the two other “separation” issues alongside the Irish border.

Though not a formal proposal, the suggestion by British officials that Ireland could effectively maintain an open-ended veto over Brexit would mean the Irish government could block any final deal if it’s unhappy with how the border issue is handled and maintain the leverage it currently has.

Breaking the Logjam

European officials said while such an approach could eventually be part of the solution, it won’t be enough to break the logjam next month. They said Britain’s refusal to give written guarantees on the border suggests it may use it as a bargaining chip later in the talks, even if that isn’t its intention. They also said it’s not necessarily clear that Ireland could block all elements of U.K.’s exit and trade deal if it wanted to.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has pledged to stand firm in the face of any pressure to move talks on without enough progress on the border question. The U.K. has said it wants to leave the single market and customs union -- which make a borderless Ireland possible now -- but it wants to maintain as frictionless a frontier as possible. After the U.K. leaves the union, Ireland’s 310-mile (500-kilometer) border running from near Derry in the north to Dundalk in the south will form the EU’s land border with Britain.

Ireland is backed by the rest of the EU over the border question, and despite concerns that the U.K. is trying to downplay the issue in other capitals, is happy there’s no sign of that alliance fraying, the people said.

Supporting May

An added complication for May’s government is the pivotal role of the Democratic Unionist Party, the pro-Brexit party which props her up at Westminster. The DUP is adamant that Northern Ireland will leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of U.K., and London is said to be aware of its sensitivities as it tries to find language to satisfy the Irish.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the U.K. government is “listening carefully” to Northern Ireland and any “artificial” guarantees shouldn’t undermine the constitutional position of the region.

Irish Border Plays Key Role in Post-Brexit World: QuickTake Q&A

“The U.K. government has always worked, and will continue to work, extremely closely with the Irish government in our joint role as co-signatories to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, ” the Department For Exiting the EU said in an emailed response to questions. “As we have said consistently, it is essential that we find a way forward with the Irish government and the EU that meets our joint objective to avoid a hard border.”

The Irish foreign ministry declined to comment.

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