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UK agrees to ‘regulatory alignment’ on both sides of Irish border

After intensive negotiations in recent days, Britain made a clear commitment to keep economic rules on both sides of the new UK-EU land border across Ireland similar enough to allow no frontier.

world Updated: Dec 04, 2017 20:44 IST
Reuters, Dublin/Brussels
Ireland,Brexit,Prime Minister Theresa May
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on December 4, 2017. (Reuters)

Britain agreed on Monday to keep Northern Ireland in “regulatory alignment” with the European Union after Brexit, Irish government sources said, raising hopes Prime Minister Theresa May can strike a deal in Brussels to start free trade talks.

After intensive negotiations in recent days, Britain made what the Irish sources called a clear commitment to keep economic rules on both sides of the new UK-EU land border across the island of Ireland similar enough to allow no frontier -- and so ease fears of stirring up conflict again in Northern Ireland.

News of a deal, by raising the prospect of starting trade negotiations in the coming weeks, triggered speculation that it could result in the whole of the United Kingdom effectively remaining in a customs union, or even the EU single market, despite May’s insistence that it would not do so.

The pro-British Northern Irish party on which May relies for support in parliament immediately insisted rules on the British mainland must not deviate from those in Northern Ireland, a position May herself supports. As a result, it is hard to see that Britain could itself stray far from EU regulations.

That idea was immediately embraced by the leaders of London and Scotland, two major British regions where voters strongly opposed Brexit in last year’s referendum. Scotland’s first minister and the mayor of London both repeated their wish to stay in a customs union or, better, the EU single market.

That is a position May’s hardline pro-Brexit supporters would not countenance, underlining the conundrums that the Irish border and other complex issues have raised over Britain’s ability to make a clean break after 44 years of EU membership.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar by phone. EU lawmaker Philippe Lamberts, who met Juncker earlier on Monday, said the draft text on Ireland would commit Britain to “full alignment” on rules.

Donald Tusk, the EU summit chair, tweeted ebulliently after speaking to Varadkar that there was good progress on the Irish issue to unblock UK-EU trade talks: “Tell me why I like Mondays!” the former Polish premier wrote. “Getting closer to sufficient progress at December (EU summit).”

This is code for Britain complying with a set of conditions the EU wants met on divorce terms before leaders will agree to launch talks on a future trade deal at a summit next week.

May and Juncker made no comment to reporters when they met at the EU executive’s Berlaymont headquarters for a lunch that diplomats and officials hope can seal a breakthrough that would open the way to negotiations on future trade relations.

Tusk cancelled a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah and hastily scheduled his own meeting with May for after lunch. Officials said he was preparing to call round EU leaders to get agreement on trade negotiations. National envoys handling Brexit were also summoned urgently to a meeting in Brussels later on Monday.

London has broadly agreed to many of the EU’s divorce terms, including paying out something like €50 billion. But the issues of the rights of expatriate citizens and the UK-EU border on the island of Ireland defied a deal until the last minute.

Elmar Brok, another member of the European Parliament who met Juncker and his Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, before they met May, said “just a few words” separated the sides.

In London, May’s spokesman said: “Progress is being made. There’s more still to agree upon.”

First Published: Dec 04, 2017 20:44 IST