EU expects May by 7am Brussels if Brexit deal sealed

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street, London December 6, 2017.  — Reuters pic
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street, London December 6, 2017. — Reuters pic

BRUSSELS, Dec 8 — Theresa May is against the clock to come up with concessions so that deadlocked Brexit talks can finally move on to trade. The main sticking point is how to prevent a hard border emerging in Ireland after Brexit. That means the key decision-makers are now the Irish government and Northern Ireland’s biggest party.

Noises from the European Commission and the UK yesterday evening were increasingly positive, but work remained to resolve the impasse — with officials on the Northern Irish and Irish side urging caution.

Here are the latest developments, updated throughout the day. Time-stamps are London time.

Commission expects May in Brussels by 7am if deal (21:40)

The European Commission expects May to be in Brussels by 7 am if a deal on the Irish border is sealed overnight, according to a person familiar. May’s office wouldn’t be drawn on the premier’s travel plans, and officials from both the UK government and the Democratic Unionist Party cautioned not to expect too much to happen during the night.

Meanwhile, BBC reporter Laura Kuenssberg said on Twitter that she’s hearing May will travel early to the Belgian capital to meet with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk to announce agreement.

She followed that up with a Tweet suggesting the DUP isn’t entirely on board yet: While the party’s leadership in the Westminster Parliament has signed up to a new proposal, its leaders in Belfast are yet to do so.

UK optimistic Irish border deal ready early today (21:03)

A UK official expressed optimism a deal on the Irish border will be struck by Friday morning, though officials on all sides warn there’s still work to be done to break the impasse. An agreement hasn’t yet been nailed down, but May might be scoping out tickets to Brussels.

EU hopes for good news in morning, diplomats told (20:28)

The European Commission updated EU diplomats yesterday evening on the Irish border question, telling them it hopes to have good news very early this morning, an official familiar with the matter said.

That followed a person familiar with the thinking of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party urging caution and saying work remains to be done to resolve the impasse. After Monday’s debacle, everyone is trying to strike a cautious tone and not cry victory too soon.

May’s office remained tight-lipped over the negotiations, issuing a brief statement confirming calls on Thursday evening with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar. “Discussions about taking forward the Brexit process are ongoing,” the statement said.

Brexit talks to go through night as Irish deal is close (19:50)

Talks will go through the night as the UK and European Union seek a deal on the status of the Irish border so that Brexit talks can finally move on to crucial trade negotiations.

"We are making progress but not yet fully there. Talks are continuing through the night,” chief EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas said in a Twitter post.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has spoken to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and UK Prime Minister Theresa May by phone. EU Council President Donald Tusk is due to speak to reporters at dawn in Brussels today.

The UK isn’t confirming that a deal has been done, nor whether May will head to Brussels.

If a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of the Irish border is reached — and the Northern Irish kingmakers in the DUP accept it — then the three key divorce issues will have been settled, allowing talks to move on to the future relationship and the transition deal that businesses are desperate to get in place.

The pound rose 0.5 per cent.

Tusk plans dawn statement, Irish deal in the balance (19:07)

EU President Donald Tusk will make a statement on Brexit in Brussels at 7.50am local time today — just a week before a crunch summit where both sides are aiming for breakthrough.

There’s been no explanation of what he may say but two European officials said a deal on the Irish border still hangs in the balance. A UK official also says there’s no agreement yet. Talks are ongoing between the UK, the EU, Ireland and the Northern Irish party that holds the balance of power in London.

Reuters quoted an Irish official as saying a deal could be hours away.

Later today chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier is due to speak in Paris. The EU has said Sunday is the absolute deadline for the UK to make proposals on the key divorce issues including what happens to the Irish border if it wants the Dec 14 summit to greenlight the start of trade talks.

The pound rose 0.6 per cent to US$1.3472

EU’s Tusk to say something but tight-lipped on details (17:22)

Accredited EU correspondents in Brussels received the following cryptic text message yesterday evening: “President Tusk will make a press statement on Brexit tomorrow at 7.50 in the Europa building. Further details will follow.” The spokespeople for the president of the EU Council declined to provide any details.

UK and EU said to agree post-Brexit role for ECJ (14.59)

Brexit negotiators for the UK and the EU have reached a deal on a future role for the European Court of Justice in British legal cases after Brexit, according to two people familiar with the matter. Solving the Irish border question is now the last hurdle in the way of trade talks starting, they said.

The jurisdiction of the Luxembourg-based court was one of two obstacles that blocked an overarching agreement on the terms of Britain’s divorce on Monday, when May held a lunch meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.

May previously made ending the writ of the ECJ one of her key Brexit red lines. Euroskeptic British politicians and newspapers have demanded that UK judges must have the final say over cases heard in the country’s courts.

The EU, however, argues that European citizens should still be able to rely on the ECJ to protect the rights they have accrued under EU law, after Brexit. As a compromise, May is said to have offered the EU a role for the court in guaranteeing the rights of European citizens living in the UK once the country leaves the bloc.

One key question was how long the ECJ will be allowed to have a role in overseeing decisions of the British courts after Brexit day in March 2019. The EU is said to have demanded a 15-year period during which the ECJ will be able to rule on UK legal cases involving EU citizens. May is reported to have demanded the court’s powers cease after five years.

The agreement, which has not yet been set out publicly, leaves the complex question of the Irish border as the last remaining obstacle to agreeing the separation deal.

Irish government wants to be helpful (12.42pm.)

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told lawmakers in Dublin that the government wants to be “helpful,” as May scrambles to find wording that will allow Brexit talks to move on. Still, he made clear that the administration isn’t budging from its central position of seeking guarantees to ensure no hard border re-emerges on the island of Ireland.

“We accept that the British government is trying to move this process forward in good faith,” he said. “ We want to work with them not against them but Ireland has real concerns.”

The pound fell 0.3 per cent to US$1.3350.

May and Juncker working to break deadlock (12.10pm)

May is working with Juncker to get an agreement that would allow talks to move on to trade at a summit on Dec 14, the UK government said.

“We’re close to an agreement but there’s more work to be done — it’s an ongoing process,” May’s spokesman James Slack told reporters. May spoke to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Wednesday.

The UK continues to push back against the timetable set by the EU, which had said this week was the ”deadline of deadlines” if May wants trade talks to start by year-end. The UK government is working toward Dec 14 instead.

European officials indicated on Wednesday that Juncker would be willing to keep talking to May until the very last minute, as both sides want to get a deal. But yesterday, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Sunday was the deadline.

The pound was down 0.4 per cent at US$1.3440 at 12.04pm in London, a third straight decline.

“So far no white smoke,” Schinas said in Brussels.

May crafts new Irish offer as deadline slips (7.41am)

Amid signs that Europe is prepared to give May a bit more time, the prime minister is preparing another proposal on the sensitive issue of the Irish border in an effort to break the deadlock. And Ireland is open to having a look at it.

“I expressed my willingness to consider that because I want to move things forward as well,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters late on Wednesday.

May also spoke to Arlene Foster of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party on Wednesday — there wasn’t much sign of flexibility there.

The party that props up May’s government – and defines itself by its mission to keep Northern Ireland in the UK — is demanding significant changes to May’s previous proposal, which would have left the enclave aligned with rules in the Republic of Ireland and therefore risked putting up a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

Adding to the tension on Wednesday night, Sinn Fein, the party that wants a united Ireland, held a protest in Belfast against a hard border with the Republic and unveiled a mural calling on Varadkar to use his “veto” to press his case, the BBC reports.

A separate rally called for the territory to have special status inside the EU’s single market. Northern Ireland voters opted to remain in the referendum, but the biggest party, the DUP, is pro-Brexit.

While Irish officials were increasingly pessimistic earlier on Wednesday that a deal could be reached this month, Varadkar’s openness to looking at another proposal reflects Dublin’s opposing interests.

Ireland wants talks to move on to trade and, after the UK, has the most to lose from a messy exit. A no-deal Brexit would make a hard border on the island almost inevitable.

Meanwhile in Brussels, there are signs EU officials are willing to be flexible on the deadline they set ahead of the key summit on Dec 14-15. The bloc had said that this week was the “deadline of deadlines” as the proposals May brings need to go through the EU machinery before leaders can announce a common position at the summit. But the tone softened on Wednesday.

Juncker is willing to meet May right up until the summit, officials said. One diplomat said the hard deadline is now Dec. 11, the day representatives of EU leaders meet in Brussels to prepare their position for the summit. Remember when Dec 4 was the absolute cutoff?

Coming up

Today 8: Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier speaks in Paris. Dec 11: EU leaders’ representatives meet in Brussels to prepare for summit. Dec 12: EU ministers meet in Brussels to finalize summit preparations. Dec 14: EU summit — this is when UK wants EU to sign off on divorce terms so talks can move on to trade

What happened on Wednesday

Ten lessons from three frantic days of Brexit reversals. Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers the cabinet decided to leave the customs union without a careful analysis of the number. Davis also revealed the government hadn’t carried out the sector-by-sector Brexit impact studies that he had indicated had been prepared. Pro-Brexit Tories voiced concern about May’s approach EU said to be flexible on deadline as summit looms. — Bloomberg

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