Envoys hail Brexit progress but no Irish border breakthrough

Erika Holt
March 20, 2018

The remaining 27 European Union countries say Britain must agree to terms on Northern Ireland before it will sign off on the final version of their divorce agreement and advance to trade talks in April.

Update 7.59am: Tánaiste Simon Coveney is expected to warn today the Brexit negotiations can not move on unless Britain signs off this week on the backstop deal to ensure there is no hard border when it leaves the EU.

European Union officials have signalled that without agreement on withdrawal, there will be no transition agreement, a position which will be decided by European Union leaders, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, at the summit in Brussels on Friday.

"British citizens and European citizens of the 27 who arrive during the transition period will receive the same rights and guarantees as those who arrived before the day of Brexit", said the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, during a joint press conference on the latest draft of the withdrawal agreement.

Some issues remained to be settled, including the thorny question of the Irish border and the governance of the eventual withdrawal agreement.

Although this has answered some of the questions asked by the United Kingdom meat industry, Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said that more information is needed on how the ports system will work once Brexit happens.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who relies on pro-British Northern Ireland members of Parliament to pass her Brexit legislation, rejected a fallback proposed by Brussels three weeks ago. The deal would see Northern Ireland stay partly within the single market and customs union unless some other solution to avoid a "hard" customs border is found.

The DUP said in a statement there had been "no agreement" around how arrangements of any potential backstop or other border options would work. Davis said the deal would allow companies "to plan for the future with confidence".

Mr Barnier said it was a decisive step but added: 'It remains a step, we are not at the end of the road'.

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After an intense few days and nights of talks, Brexit secretary David Davis said agreement on the terms of the 21-month period, ending on 31 December 2020, was a "significant" moment, which would give businesses and citizens the reassurance they needed.

Davis however denied that Britain had backed down, saying it was still pushing for a solution as part of a trade deal which would mean there was no need for the backstop.

The party, which keeps Conservative prime minister Theresa May in power at Westminster, has said her government had not changed its position on the EU's draft legal text on the Withdrawal Agreement, and that it was unconcerned because vital sections have yet to be agreed.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who met Barnier in Brussels before the announcements on Monday, said he was satisfied: "Good progress today on Brexit", he tweeted, thanking Barnier and Davis.

Versus the euro, sterling rose 0.8 percent to 87.46 pence per euro.

James Stewart, head of Brexit for consultants KPMG, was cautious, however: "We should remember that this is a contract that's been written but not signed". "We were able this morning to agree, after all those days and nights of hard work, on a large part of what will be an worldwide agreement for the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom", Barnier told a press conference with Davis. "Legal certainty is what counts".

European Union citizens arriving in Britain during the transition period will have the same rights as European Union nationals now.

One EU diplomat said: "The Brits have just given in on everything so big was their drive to get the transition".

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