U.K., EU Working on Irish Border Fix as Brexit Crunch Nears

Updated on
  • Irish Border is main obstacle after outline agreement on bill
  • Reaffirming Good Friday commitments could be part of solution

U.K. and EU Agree to Outline on Brexit Divorce Bill

The U.K. and the European Union are working against the clock to reach a compromise on the Irish border that will allow a breakthrough in Brexit talks at a key meeting next week.

Prime Minister Theresa May needs to find a way of wording a commitment to the EU that Brexit won’t mean a hard border goes up between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when the 300-mile line dividing them becomes the U.K.’s new frontier with the EU.

Her government is talking to Dublin and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, to find a solution by Monday -- the deadline all sides are working towards. 

Reiterating commitments to the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Ireland after decades of violence could be part of the solution, according to four European officials. But Ireland is insisting on a written commitment that goes further, and makes sure regulations on each side of the border won’t diverge significantly after Brexit, one of the officials said.
Negotiators have reached a preliminary agreement on the financial settlement Britain will pay when it quits the EU. That leaves the sensitive question of the Irish border as the main obstacle in separation talks.

The pound continued to strengthen on Thursday on hopes of a breakthrough in divorce talks, which have shown little progress for months. The Times of London reported that an agreement on the Irish border is close, and the EU will offer a deal on the transitional arrangements that businesses are clamoring for as soon as January.

24 Hours

“In the same way as we have seen movement in the last 24 hours in relation to the financial settlement, I expect that we will see movement in this regard in the next few days as well,” Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “And hopefully we will.”

In private some officials were less bullish. The chances of an agreement on the Irish issue by next week are 50-50, according to one European official, and 60-40 according to another.

Trade Deals

Thanks to the EU and its single market, the border now is virtually invisible, with animals, goods and people crossing it freely. Brexit will mean a border probably has to go up somewhere as the U.K. plans to leave Europe’s single market and customs union, and also plans to strike trade deals with countries such as the U.S.

The Times reported that the solution could hinge on giving Northern Ireland more powers locally over customs, energy and agriculture as a way to keep rules the same on each side of the border after Brexit. The U.K. proposal commits it to working to avoid regulatory divergence on the island of Ireland, the paper said.

Why Ireland’s Border Is Brexit’s Stubborn Puzzle: QuickTake Q&A

Ireland wants no border at all -- for historic, political and economic reasons -- and the EU has adopted the same stance. But no border means keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the regulations that apply in the Republic, and that could mean erecting a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The DUP considers that a red line and their view is more important than ever as their lawmakers prop up May’s government in London.

Same Rules

The DUP said it’s while open to co-operation on some areas, it won’t accept a situation where Northern Ireland has to play by the same rules as those operating south of the border.

“There’s areas where frankly divergence will come about because we in Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom believe we’re going in a different direction, for example on agriculture,” DUP lawmaker Ian Paisley said in an RTE interview on Thursday. “Why would we hold to certain policies that would hold us back.”

On Monday, May has lunch with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and is expected to present the formal offer on the divorce bill and Ireland. Brexit Secretary David Davis and his counterpart Michel Barnier may meet beforehand and the aim is to get a joint statement on progress. If all goes well, the EU would make clear that trade and transition talks can start, leaving everything stitched up in time for the Dec. 14 summit.

Businesses are desperate for negotiations to start on the transition deal that Britain wants to put in place after Brexit and also for talks to get going on trade -- where the real battle will begin.

Now for the Real Fight: Why the Brexit Bill Is the Easy Part

— With assistance by Thomas Penny, Peter Flanagan, Patrick Donahue, and Ott Ummelas

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