Theresa May has a week — at most — to come up with concessions so that deadlocked Brexit talks can finally move on to trade. The main sticking point is how to prevent a hard border emerging in Ireland after Brexit. That means the key decision-makers are now the Irish government and Northern Ireland’s biggest party.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told lawmakers in Dublin that the government wants to be “helpful,” as May scrambles to find wording that will allow Brexit talks to move on. Still, he made clear that the administration isn’t budging from its central position of seeking guarantees to ensure no hard border re-emerges on the island of Ireland.
“We accept that the British government is trying to move this process forward in good faith,” he said. “ We want to work with them not against them but Ireland has real concerns.”
The pound fell 0.3 per cent to $1.3350.
May is working with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to get an agreement that would allow talks to move on to trade at a summit on December 14, the UK government said.
“We’re close to an agreement but there’s more work to be done — it’s an ongoing process,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman James Slack told reporters. May spoke to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Wednesday.
The UK continues to push back against the timetable set by the EU, which had said this week was the “ deadline of deadlines” if May wants trade talks to start by year-end. The UK government is working toward December 14 instead.
European officials indicated on Wednesday that Juncker would be willing to keep talking to May until the very last minute, as both sides want to get a deal. But on Thursday, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Sunday was the deadline.
The pound was down 0.4 per cent at $1.3440 at 12:04pm in London, a third straight decline.
“So far no white smoke,” Schinas said in Brussels.
Amid signs that Europe is prepared to give Theresa May a bit more time, the prime minister is preparing another proposal on the sensitive issue of the Irish border in an effort to break the deadlock. And Ireland is open to having a look at it.
“I expressed my willingness to consider that because I want to move things forward as well,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters late on Wednesday.
May also spoke to Arlene Foster of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party on Wednesday “” there wasn’t much sign of flexibility there. The party that props up May’s government “” and defines itself by its mission to keep Northern Ireland in the UK “” is demanding significant changes to May’s previous proposal, which would have left the enclave aligned with rules in the Republic of Ireland and therefore risked putting up a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Adding to the tension on Wednesday night, Sinn Fein, the party that wants a united Ireland, held a protest in Belfast against a hard border with the Republic and unveiled a mural calling on Varadkar to use his “veto” to press his case, the BBC reports. A separate rally called for the territory to have special status inside the EU’s single market. Northern Ireland voters opted to remain in the referendum, but the biggest party, the DUP, is pro-Brexit.
While Irish officials were increasingly pessimistic earlier on Wednesday that a deal could be reached this month, Varadkar’s openness to looking at another proposal reflects Dublin’s opposing interests. Ireland wants talks to move on to trade and, after the UK, has the most to lose from a messy exit. A no-deal Brexit would make a hard border on the island almost inevitable.
Meanwhile in Brussels, there are signs EU officials are willing to be flexible on the deadline they set ahead of the key summit on December 14-15. The bloc had said that this week was the “deadline of deadlines” as the proposals May brings need to go through the EU machinery before leaders can announce a common position at the summit. But the tone softened on Wednesday.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is willing to meet May right up until the summit, officials said. One diplomat said the hard deadline is now December 11, the day representatives of EU leaders meet in Brussels to prepare their position for the summit.