Irish border problem defeats weekend flurry of Brexit diplomacy

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BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) – The stubborn problem of Ireland’s land border with Britain defeated marathon talks to seal a Brexit deal on Sunday in time for a European Union summit this week.

European Union’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier takes part in the EU Commission’s weekly college meeting in Brussels, Belgium, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Britain and the EU called a pause in the Brexit negotiations until leaders of member states meet in Brussels, four EU sources told Reuters, dealing a blow to hopes that a flurry of talks could secure a draft agreement beforehand.

It is now not clear what, if anything, leaders of the 27 countries that will remain in the EU can agree to when they gather over dinner on Wednesday, before British Prime Minister Theresa May joins them at a regular summit on Thursday.

With less than six months until Britain leaves the EU, Britain’s Brexit minister Dominic Raab met EU negotiator Michel Barnier on Sunday.

But a “backstop” to prevent a return to controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland once again got in the way.

“Despite intense efforts, some key issues are still open, including the backstop for IE/NI to avoid a hard border,” Barnier tweeted after his talks with Raab.

Both sides want to avoid a return to checks on what will become the United Kingdom’s only land border with the EU to avoid hindering trade on the island of Ireland and reawakening tensions two decades after a peace deal ended years of violence in Northern Ireland.

However, the EU insists Britain give assurances that, in the event future negotiations fail to ensure a UK-EU trade deal which can avoid a hard border, Northern Ireland should remain inside the EU’s economic rules. May and her allies in Belfast reject that.

“Despite constructive and intensive negotiations, several key issues remain unresolved,” one senior EU diplomat said. “No further negotiations are planned ahead of the European Council. The EU negotiator will brief the leaders who will then assess the progress so far.”


Britain’s biggest shift in foreign and trade policy for decades is also dividing the prime minister’s Conservative Party, with critics, such as Raab’s predecessor, pressing May to change her strategy.

Britain’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab arrives in Downing Street, London, September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

David Davis, who resigned as Brexit minister in July, accused the government earlier on Sunday of accepting “the EU’s language on dealing with the Northern Ireland border”.

“This is one of the most fundamental decisions that government has taken in modern times. It is time for cabinet members to exert their collective authority,” wrote Davis, who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.

“This week the authority of our constitution is on the line,” he said in an article in the Sunday Times.

Davis also pressed May to abandon her Brexit proposal, which involves staying in a free trade zone with the EU for manufactured and agricultural goods. The bloc “has rejected it. The public does not like it. Parliament will not vote for it,” he wrote.


So far, May has shown little appetite to change tack, trying to persuade Conservative lawmakers and those in the opposition Labour Party to vote for any deal based on her plan.

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But lobbying of May from all sides has increased in recent weeks as London and Brussels edge closer to an agreement on a draft withdrawal treaty to cover the divorce terms, a transition period and a solution for Northern Ireland.

Preventing any return of a “hard” border in Ireland has become one of the major obstacles, with Brexit campaigners fearful that a backstop with no expiry date will keep Britain inside a customs union with the EU indefinitely.

May insists any customs arrangement as part of the backstop must be temporary, but the EU has refused to set an end date.

Even if May reaches a withdrawal agreement, she will struggle to get it through parliament and may find opposition from the small Northern Irish party which props up here minority government to other legislation such as the budget.

“I fully appreciate the risks of a ‘no deal’ but the dangers of a bad deal are worse,” Arlene Foster, head of the Democratic Unionist Party, wrote in the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.

“This backstop arrangement would not be temporary. It would be the permanent annexation of Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom and forever leave us subject to rules made in a place where we have no say.”

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Keith Weir and David Stamp

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