x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Brexit: Britain has 48 hours to negotiate Irish border deal

The UK has been told it must agree on a text before Friday evening otherwise talks cannot move on to a future trade deal

Visitors shield themselves from the rain outside 10 Downing St in London. The British Government continues to work out a deal on the matter of the Ireland border before Brexit negotiations with the EU can continue. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Visitors shield themselves from the rain outside 10 Downing St in London. The British Government continues to work out a deal on the matter of the Ireland border before Brexit negotiations with the EU can continue. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Britain has been told by the EU it has 48 hours to finalise a deal on the Irish border or talks will not be able to progress to the next phase.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has been told that if a text is not agreed with the European Commission by Friday evening, then the other 27 member states will not have time to scrutinise the proposals before a crucial EU summit, which begins on December 14.

The UK has been told that “sufficient progress” must be made on three key issues- the Irish border, the divorce bill and EU citizens’ rights- before talks can move on to discuss trade.

Ireland has been the main sticking point in the negotiations with the Northern Irish party that is propping up British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government vetoing proposals that would avoid a hard border by keeping regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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The Democratic Unionist Party, which is supporting Mrs May’s minority government via a confidence and supply agreement, said they would not accept any deal that would separate Northern Ireland economically or politically with the rest of the UK.

On Thursday, the UK’s Transport Secretary and Leave campaigner, Chris Grayling said he was “optimistic” that a deal would be made and talks would be able to move on to discuss trade.

Mr Grayling told the BBC: "I remain absolutely optimistic that we will reach a successful point, we will move on to the trade talks, because ultimately it is in everybody's interests for that to happen."

Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, who had agreed to Mrs May’s proposals on regulatory alignment on Monday, said he expected talks to move forward.

Mr Varadkar said: “Having consulted with people in London, [May] wants to come back to us with text tonight and tomorrow. And I expect to move forward as well – I want us to move forward if it’s possible next week.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he hoped that Brexit talks would be able to progress by next week. Aidan Crawley/ EPA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he hoped that Brexit talks would be able to progress by next week. Aidan Crawley/ EPA

The Taoiseach indicated he would be willing to agree to a soft interpretation of what “regulatory alignment” would mean in practice but made it clear that he would not accept any deal which would lead to border checks being reinstated between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Varadkar said on Wednesday night that “not everything” would be aligned. “It means regulatory alignment where it applies to North-South co-operation, where it applies to the all-island economy, the kind of things that might give rise to the slow unwinding of what we have now,” he explained.

Meanwhile, speaking at a press conference at the Foreign Office, Boris Johnson, also a key leave campaigner, said whatever agreement is reached had “to be consistent with the UK taking back control of its laws, borders and cash”.

Mr Johnson, who famously said the EU could “go whistle” when figures as high as £80 billion (Dh390bn) were discussed to settle the UK’s accounts with the bloc, said it was time to “get on with it” referring to trade talks.

“We need to get going, franchement [frankly], with the second part of the talks. That’s the exciting bit. That’s the bit where we will achieve a new trading relationship with our friends and partners,” Mr Johnson said.

“We can get it done, we just need to get on with it, and I hope very much that the December European council will mark that progress.”

Negotiations on the other two main issues- the divorce bill and EU citizens' rights- are believed to be almost finished.

Last week, the UK upped its offer to 50 billion euros to settle its accounts with the EU, according to various media reports.

While it is understood that three million citizens from other EU states who want to stay in the UK will not have to pay to apply for settled status. Settled status would mean those who have lived in the UK for five years would have the same rights to healthcare, education, benefits and pensions as British citizens.