Brexit talks are approaching a “moment of truth”, the European Union’s lead negotiator has said amid warnings from the Irish government that trade talks could be blocked.
Michel Barnier called for “real, sufficient progress” on the Brexit “divorce bill”, citizens’ rights and the Irish border, so that EU leaders can green-light talks on trade and a transition period before Christmas.
With the deadline approaching, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney stressed that all EU27 leaders agree trade talks cannot start unless Britain offers further assurances there will be no hard border with Northern Ireland.
The comments followed claims by a Brexit-supporting MP that Ireland will have to pay if it wants to erect a physical border with Northern Ireland. Labour’s Kate Hoey was compared to Donald Trump for saying “they’ll have to pay for it”, even if Britain leaves without agreeing new trade rules with Brussels.
Prime Minister Theresa May has been given until 4 December to come up with further proposals on the withdrawal issues so Mr Barnier can tell leaders at the 14-15 December European Council summit that enough progress has been made for trade talks to begin.
Mr Coveney said Ireland will not need to use its veto to prevent progress in talks because EU negotiators will block it themselves if the UK does not offer a workable solution on the Irish border.
He said he had received personal assurances from senior EU figures Mr Barnier, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday that Brussels would hold firm on this demand.
“They have repeated the message that Ireland’s problems are the EU’s problem, so Ireland is not going to be isolated and forced to use a veto,” said Mr Coveney.
EU leaders insist a hardening of the border is inevitable if the UK leaves the single market and customs union, as checks will be required to monitor movement between jurisdictions operating under two different regulatory systems.
One solution offered by Europe is the suggestion Northern Ireland would continue to comply with EU regulations post-Brexit but this has been rejected by the UK government.
Any arrangement which appeared to give Northern Ireland a separate status would also be strongly resisted by the Democratic Unionists (DUP), whose ten MPs are effectively keeping Mrs May in Downing Street after she lost her majority in the general election.
Lord Hain, the former Labour Northern Ireland secretary, said: “Kate Hoey seems to have been taking diplomacy lessons from Donald Trump. It really is astonishing how much damage Brexit is already doing to our country’s reputation.”