BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain and the European Union must focus on getting a divorce deal with an Irish border fix before they embark on discussions on their post-Brexit trade ties, the Czech Republic’s pointman on Europe said.
Britain is due to leave the EU in 177 days but talks on managing the unprecedented split have stalled over differences on how to avoid border checks between EU-member Ireland and Britain’s province of Northern Ireland.
Officials expect a flurry of negotiations after Wednesday’s speech by British Prime Minister Theresa May closing the annual Conservative Party conference as both sides seek to break the deadlock in time for an EU summit in two weeks.
“The chief concern for the EU right now is reaching a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement that would provide us with a two year transition period in which to set out the future relationship between the EU and the UK,” State Secretary for European Affairs Ales Chmelar said, adding divorce must cover an Irish fix.
Britain’s preferred option is focusing on agreeing close future trade ties. London wants this post-Brexit arrangement to regulate the Irish border but the bloc wants an emergency solution if trade talks fail or take longer.
“The future relationship ... is a matter for future discussions. Without the Withdrawal Agreement we are, very soon, heading toward a no-deal scenario in which a hard border would inevitably be drawn up,” Chmelar said.
As both sides ready concessions, Britain is expected to present a new proposal for the Irish border soon.
The other 27 EU member states will put in writing for the first time next week their free trade proposal for Britain for after Brexit, hoping a more fleshed-out promise would woo London into compromises on Ireland and help May get enough support behind any divorce deal.
However, EU negotiators are also keen to maintain the “sequencing” used to keep up pressure on London to first deal with the Irish issue in order to ensure a smooth exit from the bloc before Brussels will fully engage on a future trade deal.
The 27 leaders scheduled a crunch summit dinner in Brussels for Wednesday, Oct. 17, the evening before May joins them for a quarterly meeting. That is the point at which the EU hopes that the outline of an exit deal is agreed. If it is, more talks will follow on the future relationship in the hope that a further summit on Nov. 17-18 can wrap up both elements of the accord.
The EU rejected London’s previous fix for Ireland last June because it envisaged only a time-limited emergency border backstop and assumed all of the UK would remain in the EU’s customs area for a while after Brexit.
EU diplomats and negotiating officials stress they have not yet seen the new British plan, but warned against recasting what was already discussed after Britain’s Brexit minister Dominic Raab told his party’s conference: “We said we would need to retain a UK-wide customs backstop.”
“We will be open to looking at some of the options on regulatory checks,” he added, though it was not sure if that would also cover manufactured goods.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on whose support May relies to govern, was quick on Tuesday to reject differing regulation to the rest of the UK after Brexit.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth