BRUSSELS • Theresa May came closer than ever on Monday to the Brexit deal she’s been working on for months. A last-minute upset over the Irish border left all parties embarrassed and doesn’t bode well for a second run at a breakthrough.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said a solution to an intractable problem — what to do with the shared border with Northern Ireland when the UK leaves — had been agreed in the morning and unravelled while May was at a lunch with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
The meal that should have been the clincher was interrupted by a phone call between May and Arlene Foster — the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes the EU’s plans for the island after Brexit and props up May’s government in London. For the DUP, any proposal that would apply to Northern Ireland and not the rest of the UK was unacceptable.
Shortly afterwards Juncker emerged to deliver a two-minute statement saying “it was not possible to reach a complete agreement today”. The divisions over Ireland and the powers of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) had proven too great.
The episode will make striking a deal by the end of the year harder, according to a person familiar with the Irish government’s thinking. Dublin had signed up to the agreement and was happy with it — any change now to placate May’s Northern Irish allies will look like a concession from Dublin.
“We don’t want to give the impression that the Irish government is going to reverse away from the deal we felt we had in place and had agreement on Monday,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in remarks broadcast by RTE yesterday. “If there are presentational issues that they want to work with us on we’ll look at that.”
Both sides vowed to carry on talking this week. Juncker was generous to the embattled prime minister and said he is confident that getting a result in time for a summit in mid-December is still within reach.
That deadline looms large because it’s only once leaders conclude Britain has achieved “sufficient progress” in the first phase of talks that trade negotiations can start and the transition arrangements wanted by businesses can be put in place. It’s 17 months since the referendum and Britain will leave the bloc in 15 months, with or without a deal.
But it’s not just the Irish border standing in the way of a deal, according to another person familiar with the situation. The reach of the ECJ in the UK after Brexit was also a stumbling block.
May has just days to do what she has failed to do in months: Find a formula on the Irish border that’s acceptable to both parties and find a concession she can offer on the ECJ that won’t enrage elements of her party so much they decide they’ve had enough. — Bloomberg