EU support for Ireland is welcome even as fears grow

EU support for Ireland is welcome even as fears grow

Government content with EU approach so far but anxious about slow pace of progress

The visit of the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt, to Dublin on Thursday offered the Dáil and the Government reassurance, as far as he could.

He told them what the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has told them: that preserving an open border in Ireland is among the highest EU priorities in the Brexit negotiations. Other EU figures of lesser luminosity have told them the same thing. The early summer meeting of the European People’s Party in Wicklow gave similar assurances of the EU’s commitment to Ireland.

The Government is nervously content with the EU’s approach to handling Brexit so far; Brussels has done everything Dublin has asked of it, and more. Mr Verhofstadt’s visit is part of that. The European Parliament has no role in the negotiations, though it must approve the final agreement. So even the language is co-ordinated. “There’s not a chink of light between what they’re doing and what we’ve asked them to do,” says one Irish official.

But the negotiations remain stuck in first gear, barely moving, and the uncertainty about the future is only adding to Irish and Northern Irish fears about the future. Assurances from Mr Verhofstadt are one thing. But the real action is elsewhere.

May’s Florence speech

Despite British requests, the EU will not talk about the “future relationship” – which will include the future trade relationship, and therefore the question of a customs border – until sufficient progress has been made on the separation agreement. But there are hopes that a major speech on Friday in Florence by British prime minister Theresa May will lead to a breakthrough at the EU-UK talks, which resume next week in Brussels.

Leaks of Ms May’s speech have suggested that she will signal a concession on the “divorce bill” promising that UK contributions to the EU budget will continue until 2020 at least, the final year of the current EU budgetary cycle and a year after the UK is scheduled to leave the union.