Another day, another doubt. After a weekend of sherpa preparations for the EU summit on Thursday and Friday, both sides are still unsure they can reach an agreed position by tomorrow night on transition terms and duration for the UK’s departure from the EU. From the Irish Times preview of the David/Barnier meeting, it’s clear that the Irish government neither want nor need to take sole responsibility for imposing a veto on a transition timetable later this week.
Irish and EU officials said privately that Ms May had to move from her hardline position on the Border or there will be no agreement this week on the withdrawal agreement, and therefore no deal on the transition.
“She is not being asked to agree to the backstop but more to the principle that there has to be a backstop,” said one EU source.
Unless the British signal that they will move towards the EU position or table workable alternatives that give effect to the agreement the British signed up to in December, “we are stuck”, said one source.
Speaking in New York, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he did not believe Ireland would be forced to block a Brexit deal this week because of the Border.
“It won’t be the case of Ireland having to block it because this is very much the position of the European Union, not just Ireland,” he said.
Given the time pressure to agree a deal before the European Council meets, Mrs May’s team fear that Mr Barnier could use the moment to press the prime minister for new commitments ( ?? bold italics mine BW) on the Irish border.
“It has happened before,” said one ally of the prime minister. “We are not taking anything for granted.” Both sides recognise that for a “pre-cooked” deal to be presented to EU leaders on Thursday, the final text will have to be signed off by Tuesday evening at the latest. One aide to Mr Davis said: “We are confident but there is still work to be done.”
Mrs May was tripped up ahead of a European Council last December by EU demands on Ireland; the prime minister agreed then to a “backstop” plan to avoid a hard border which continues to hang over Brexit talks.
The prime minister has deemed as “completely unacceptable” backstop proposals by Mr Barnier that would see Northern Ireland remain in the customs union with aligned rules on key sectors to avoid new frontier controls.
But, an EU diplomat said Theresa May had to make a “public” declaration that Brussels’ backstop border option had to be included in the final withdrawal agreement. Mrs May says that the effective establishment of a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is a non-starter. She has promised a series of seven UK-EU meetings between now and mid-April to address the Irish question.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London