Britain close to Irish border deal
Protesters at a mock checkpoint on the Irish border, which is at the centre of Brexit negotiations. There is growing confidence that agreement could be struck within a fortnight EU leaders are preparing to offer a two year Brexit transition deal as early as January after negotiators said that they were close to a breakthrough over the North ern Ireland border.
British officials tabled proposals this week to avoid a “hard border” in Ireland that could unblock the last remaining major obstacle to a deal, The Times understands.
In return the EU will pledge at a summit in Brussels next month to speed up approval for a transition deal that maintains Britain’s present relationship with the EU, reassuring businesses that might otherwise begin implementing plans for a hard Brexit.
Sources in Dublin said that there was “movement” on the issue and growing confidence that a deal could be reached before the summit on December 14-15.
The British proposal is understood to commit the government to work towards “avoiding regulatory divergence” in Ireland after Brexit even if the rest of the UK moves away from European rules. This would involve the government devolving a package of powers to Northern Ireland to enable customs convergence with the Irish Republic on areas such as agriculture and energy.
Negotiators on all sides accept that it is impossible to agree this now without a functioning executive in Northern Ireland or more detail on what kind of trade deal Britain will eventually negotiate with the EU.
The progress came after Britain tabled an improved offer on the so called Brexit divorce bill, under which it would pay the EU up to €50 billion in future liabilities “as they fall due” over the next 40 years. British officials stressed yesterday that the proposal was significantly less than previous demands and would also take account of Britain’s EU assets.
The outlines of a “standstill” transition arrangement, effectively prolonging British EU membership, are ready to be tabled after the expected sign off on the principles of a withdrawal deal at the December summit. EU sources said that the transition deal could be agreed in January before negotiations begin on a future trading relationship.
“After sufficient progress on withdrawal we will open the next two phases of negotiations, first of all on a transition period and then on the future partnership,” a senior EU negotiator said. “A transition deal will be ready in principle for January.”
A British government source also confirmed plans for a January transition deal. “In return for making progress on the withdrawal agreement the EU will move on transition by the end of January with a fair wind,” they said, adding that this was what Theresa May meant when she talked about Britain and the EU “moving forward together”.
The transition agreement is likely to propose “a timelimited prolongation of union acquis” the body of European legislation including the free movement of migrant workers.
Arrangements will “require existing union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures to apply” until at least 2021.
In that period, a Brussels source said, “the same governance will apply as under Article 50”, the EU exit clause used as the legal basis of negotiations, meaning that Britain will “not be at the table or in the room for any decisions or law making”.
A European negotiator said: “We will probably allow the British to sit on some technical implementation committees but the UK’s role in the law making and regulatory process will be to do what it is told, not to take part in decisions.
During that period, full free movement rights will continue and the UK authorities will not be allowed to discriminate in any way, including administrative procedures, between Europeans exercising their rights and British nationals.”
Technical work has begun to ensure the continuation of international treaties signed by the EU, such as those covering aviation, for Britain during the transition. Any deal on the Irish border would have to be acceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party, on whose votes the Conservatives rely in the Commons.
The party is being closely consulted over the text by the Department for Exiting the EU. The proposed deal is understood to build on the government’s position paper in the summer, which stressed the high levels of integration between the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic, particularly in agriculture and energy.
A well placed figure suggested that the DUP was prepared to endorse a text that offered to maintain regulatory alignment in those sectors after Brexit
Bruno Waterfield | OliverWright | Francis Elliott