MEPs say UK has conceded on Ireland border in Brexit talks

Draft agreement seen by MEPs said to commit to ‘continued regulatory alignment’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit

The British government appears to have bowed to the Republic of Ireland’s demand that Northern Ireland will stay aligned with key EU laws and regulations after Brexit so as to ensure that a hard border does not return to the island.

According to sources, MEPs were told by the chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, that Theresa May had conceded after days of intense talks that the province would be treated as a special case.

A draft of the text of a 15-page joint statement between the European commission and the British government is said to include a commitment in paragraph 48 that “in the absence of agreed solutions the UK will ensure that there continues to be continued regulatory alignment” with the internal market and customs union.

Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, told RTE News that Ireland had been reassured that there would be no re-emergence of a hard border. “Certainly the indications we have is that we are in a much better place than we have been in Brexit negotiations to date,” Coveney said. “We have now a language that gives us the safeguards we need.”

It is understood Ireland sees the phrase “regulatory alignment” as providing the highest degree of comfort to both sides, allowing talks to move to the next phase while at the same time giving room for manoeuvre for negotiations in the second phase.

The UK still hopes that an ambitious and unprecedented trade deal will be struck with the EU in the future that makes the agreement struck on Monday academic. However, the formulation that appears to have been struck by London and Dublin would in effect keep Northern Ireland in keys aspects of the single market and customs union in event of a less generous trade accord being settled in the future.

Arlene Foster, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, reiterated her party’s stance that the province must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the the UK.

“We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom,” Foster said in a strongly worded statement. “The economic and constitutional integrity of the UK must not be compromised in any way.”

One senior DUP source described the text of the joint statement as an “Irish government-inspired” leak, though no formal statement from the party has been issued.

Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim, stressed that he and the other nine DUP MPs in Westminster “had the leverage” to block an unacceptable deal given Theresa May’s dependence on the party for a working majority in the Commons.

In a sign of the risk posed to the government by the Irish border issue, Scotland’s first minister and the mayor of London were quick to call for special treatment too:

If one part of UK can retain regulatory alignment with EU and effectively stay in the single market (which is the right solution for Northern Ireland) there is surely no good practical reason why others can’t.

— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 4, 2017

Huge ramifications for London if Theresa May has conceded that it's possible for part of the UK to remain within the single market & customs union after Brexit. Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU and a similar deal here could protect tens of thousands of jobs.

— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) December 4, 2017

Emerging from a meeting with Barnier and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, on Monday morning, the leader of the Greens in the European parliament, Philippe Lamberts, said that he had seen the joint text and Britain had accepted the “reality” of their situation.

“The pie is almost ready. It was a surprise to me,” he said. “But it is a matter of [Britain] facing reality. I think agreement is there.”

The president of the European council, Donald Tusk, tweeted: “Tell me why I like Mondays! Encouraged after my phone call with Taoiseach on progress on #Brexit issue of Ireland. Getting closer to sufficient progress at December #EUCO.”

Tusk had earlier in the day cancelled a planned trip to the Middle East in order to concentrate on the Brexit talks and make preparations on the EU’s guidelines for a future trading relationship with the UK. He is seeing May later on Monday.

A final sign off in the joint text will be made by May and Juncker at a lunch in Brussels on Monday.

Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, called a special meeting of all party leaders to update them on Brexit at lunchtime. A statement planned for 2.30pm was postponed.

At the regular morning No 10 lobby briefing May’s official spokesman had insisted there would be no difference in the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“The PM has been clear that the UK is leaving the EU as a whole, and the territorial and economic integrity of the UK will be protected,” he said, refusing to elaborate further on what that meant.

Beyond the issue of the Irish border, Lambert said there was “still some fine tuning to be done” on citizens’ rights, but not enough to hold up talks on trade.

EU sources said the UK has conceded on allowing EU nationals living in the UK to continue to export social security benefits such as the winter fuel allowance to their home countries.

It is holding out on charging applicants for settled status and there are still some technical discussions ongoing about the role of the European court of justice in protecting the rights of EU nationals, it is understood.

Additional reporting by Henry McDonald in Dublin


Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, and Lisa O'Carroll in Dublin

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