Brexit talks will become more intensive over the next six months and will feature a greater focus in the Irish border, according to the EU side. This week looks likes providing one of those so-called crunch moments when a key Brexit decision is reached in black and white but with grey edges. The UK are hoping for agreement on a transition period longer than December 2020 as currently mooted, during which the UK would pay full EU budgetary contributions. The UK is due to leave the EU in almost a year from now, on 29th March 2019. A decision of sorts this week is expected by the 27 at the EU Council on Friday. But before the weekend, sources on the EU side weren’t so sure that British hopes would be realised.
A key sticking point remains the Irish border where little progress has been made. So they are talking about a purely political agreement which would not have legal force. While the Brexit secretary David Davis is hoping for a legal text, a political agreement at this stage would be broadly satisfactory. As we’ve seen the British are keener on achieving political momentum than certainty, being content to leave legal form to the final deal. We saw this in the contrast between the draft withdrawal agreement affecting Northern Ireland’s future status and the EU ‘s legal draft which when it emerged two month’s later, Theresa May said she would not accept.
The Commons’ Brexit committee has joined the NI Committee in pointing out the lack of British clarity on the border. But Brexiteers on the Brexit committee have split form the majority to denounce the idea of an extension of the transition – or implementation – period regardless. The government seem to have disregarded them on the length of the transition period. But on the EU side what will Ireland do if lack of clarity continues on the border issue? Would they use a veto which the EU Council has given them?
The signs from foreign minister Simon Coveney speaking from Hong Kong last week that they won’t. But what then?
The Tánaiste said that it could take the entire transition period for a future trade agreement between the UK and the EU to be concluded.
“In truth, there is no way we are going to have a detailed free trade agreement negotiated before Britain leaves the European Union,” he said.
Mr Coveney said that it would take “years” to agree a free trade deal given the complicated areas it covers, from aviation to food to financial services, but he hoped a framework agreement would be place by October or November which will set the parameters to agree a free-trade agreement in the future.
The Tánaiste’s remarks on extending the transition period reflect concerns that proposed deadlines may slip and a longer transition period may be needed given the deep divisions between London and Brussels. He has said previously that the transition period could take up to five years.
On the issue of the future of the Irish Border, Mr Coveney told Bloomberg that the Government was happy to talk to London about how to prevent border checks on goods moving north and south after the UK leaves the customs union.
But in the absence of an agreement on this, the Irish Government was “very clear” on the default position set out the commitment given by Ms May’s government in the December agreement that there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland, he said.