Yesterday it appeared that a breakthrough on Brexit negotiations had finally been reached. With the sticking points of a financial settlement, the status of EU nationals and the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland said to be resolved, all signs were that an announcement was imminent and the UK and the EU would be ready to move on to phase two – trade negotiations. Delegates from all member states gathered to receive the news, and time was scheduled in parliament to discuss the progress.
But after a reported two and a half hours of waiting, the delegates were dismissed and the anticipated news did not materialise. Instead, European Council President Donald Tusk announced that more time is required, and an extension of what was a ‘final deadline’ had been agreed.
Reports are that the last minute block on progress came via the Democratic Unionist Party, whose support is vital for the government to pass legislation. DUP leader Arlene Foster is said to be concerned about the wording of an agreement on Irish border arrangements, and seeks further clarification.
The crux of the problem is that for the UK to head on a separate regulatory path to the rest of the EU (as the UK is seeking to do), there needs to be some form of customs and border checks between NI and the Republic of Ireland. Many on both sides are determined not to see a ‘hard’ border go up. Some are calling for any such border to instead be situated in the sea between all of Ireland and the UK mainland, meaning Northern Ireland would continue to remain aligned with the trade regulations of the EU. The DUP are determined to resist this outcome and have NI remain in the same status as the rest of the UK.
Initial reactions of financial markets and the value of the pound suggest all are expecting these final points to be ironed out quickly. However these latest developments highlight once again the precarious position of Theresa May and her negotiating team, having to balance competing demands of those wanting a full break away from EU regulation and those pushing for as ‘soft’ an exit as possible. All is further compounded by the veto power of the DUP.
Meanwhile the clock is ticking inevitably towards exit day, and those of us concerned with customs and international trade continue to wait to find out what we need to do to prepare.