Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed doubts on November 7 that a Brexit deal was possible before the end of the month, saying his British counterpart, Prime Minister Theresa May, has yet to find a way to rally either her cabinet or party around her plans for a transitional deal with the EU.
“With every day that passes, the possibility of having a special summit in November becomes less likely,” Varadkar said after meeting with Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila in reference to the widely held belief that a breakthrough is needed within a week if a Brexit deal is to be sealed.
The EU had planned a special summit to sign off on a possible Brexit deal later this month, but negotiators have been unable to reach a satisfactory agreement over the status of Northern Ireland.
Brussels is calling for a new so-called “backstop arrangement” as part of any withdrawal agreement that will ensure that the border between the UK, which Northern Ireland will remain a part of, and EU-member Ireland remains open after the United Kingdom withdraws from the EU in March 2019.
The current backstop agreement envisages a border transfer between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea, keeping this part of the UK in the Customs Union and the Single Market.
The UK is proposing an agreement that will keep the whole of the UK in the Customs Union and the Single Market for a limited period of time. Ireland, however, wants a guarantee that the UK cannot unilaterally reinstate a hard border that would, once again, divide the island.
Ireland, the UK, and the EU are now negotiating a commonly acceptable mechanism that would detail how the UK could end the transition period to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market without having to divide the island.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland requires London and Dublin to guarantee the freedom of movement throughout the whole of Ireland. The agreement was, at the time of signing, inked by all sides on the basis that both the UK and Ireland would be EU members.
Ireland is willing to accept a “review procedure” in which Dublin would effectively be given a veto before the UK reinstates a border between the north and the rest of Ireland.
On November 7, May’s cabinet was invited to review the draft Brexit deal with the EU that did not include a no-border guarantee for Northern Ireland, as it is still under negotiation. Hardline Brexit ministers are willing to consider a series of transitional arrangements for the UK so long as there is a clearly defined end date, a prospect that will be difficult as an Irish veto makes an end date hard to define.
Many in May’s ruling Conservative Party fear that the UK could be effectively “trapped” into the EU’s Customs Union and the Single Market, which has forces Number 10 Downing Street to consult with Britain’s attorney general about how to proceed with the matter.
May has, however, been reluctant to publish the finding of their consultations, despite political pressure from Tory Eurosceptics, Northern Ireland’s staunchly pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party, and the Labour opposition.
The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 but there is no withdrawal deal in place.