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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

EU warns of key disagreements over Northern Ireland as Brexit clock ticks on

Michel Barnier described the outstanding border issues as a key disagreement

Chief EU negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier described the outstanding border issues as a key disagreement following a meeting at the European Council in Brussels on November 12, 2018. / AFP / JOHN THYS
Chief EU negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier described the outstanding border issues as a key disagreement following a meeting at the European Council in Brussels on November 12, 2018. / AFP / JOHN THYS

Officials in Britain and Europe have all but given up hope of a special summit this month to agree the terms of the country’s departure from the bloc in March next year.

Briefing the EU’s Foreign Ministers on Monday morning, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said talks remain “intense” adding that “an agreement has not been reached yet”. One British official told reporters on Monday that the possibility of a summit was receding. “There’s no breakthrough at the moment,” the official said.

Sterling dropped to an 11-day low of $1.285, a decline of almost one per cent on the day, as uncertainty rose over the ability of the two sides to complete the deal.

“Some key issues remain under discussion, in particular a solution to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he added.

Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also attested to the significance of the current stage of negotiations, describing them as being at "a very critical and sensitive stage".

"The withdrawal agreement must include a legally operable backstop for avoiding a hard border that must be in place unless and until another solution is found," he added.

Gernot Blümel, Austria’s minister for the EU, emphasised the unity of the EU member states regarding negotiations."In these final stages of the negotiations, ministers showed again today that we are determined to keep the unity of the EU 27. We have reconfirmed our trust in the negotiator. And we support his efforts to continue working towards a deal,” he said.

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Mr Barnier’s comments come as disarray sweeps all sides of divide in British politics. Theresa May’s government is scrambling to shore up support for any parliamentary vote on the final brexit deal.

Last week saw the resignation of her transport minister Jo Johnson, who called for a second public vote on the issue – more than 50 of her MPs have publicly said they would vote against the so called Chequers arrangement.

Pouring further scorn on the Prime Minister's negotiation efforts, Mr Johnson told a British newspaper on Monday "We are being presented with a ridiculous choice: ‘my way or the highway’ vassalage with the Prime Minister’s deal, or the chaos of ‘no deal’.”

Mrs May’s Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have also said they would vote against any deal that would see an invisible border in the Irish sea.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown also added to the increasing pressure on Mrs May, he told an audience in London that he believed there would be a second referendum.

Disenchantment with the looming deal in Northern Ireland goes beyond just the DUP, with a cross party delegation of Northern Irish political leaders arriving in London on Monday to demonstrate united front against any sort of hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and rally against the DUP’s positions in Brexit negotiations.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the European Union is essentially invisible under the present circumstances, and critics of Brexit say it’s re-imposition could put the Northern Irish peace agreement in jeopardy.

Michelle O'Neil, vice president of Sinn Fein, said a majority of elected politicians from the region were against Brexit and the DUP were intentionally misrepresenting local views.

“They [DUP] do not speak for the majority of the people," she told a press conference held by four leaders of political parties in the province. “We collectively represent majority of people in NI – 50 seats in NI assembly.

“There is no good to come from Brexit, nothing positive in Brexit for people in the north.

“We requested to meet with the PM, she refused to meet the pro-remain parties, it’s about her relationship with the DUP.”