DUBLIN (Reuters) - A breakthrough on the future of the Irish border once Britain leaves the European Union is “doable” before a key EU summit in two weeks time but the negotiating teams are “not there yet”, Ireland’s foreign minister said on Friday.
Avoiding a so-called “hard border” on the island of Ireland is the last major hurdle before Brexit talks can move to negotiations on Britain’s future trade relationship with the EU and a possible two-year Brexit transition deal.
European Council President Donald Tusk last week set an “absolute deadline” of Monday - when British Prime Minister Theresa May meets EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker and his chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier - for London to deliver “sufficient progress” in its divorce offer.
“Let’s hope we can make more progress in the next few days. I don’t think everything needs to be done by next Monday but certainly we need to be in a position by the time EU leaders meet (on Dec. 14), I hope, to have wording that everybody can live with,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told reporters.
“I think it’s doable but I think there’s a need for some movement and more flexibility than we’ve seen to date. We’re not where we need to be today but I do think it is possible to get to where we need to be over the next few days,” he said.
If London meets the three key EU conditions on its financial settlement for leaving, the rights of expatriate citizens and the border, then leaders could give a green light to trade talks at the summit on Dec. 14-15.
Before it can sign off on the first phase, Dublin wants May to spell out in writing how she intends to make good on a commitment to avoid a hard border and says the best way to do so is to keep regulations the same on both sides of a border that will be the UK’s only land frontier with the bloc after Brexit.
Coveney said negotiators were working to find “sensible wording”, drafts of which were being exchanged. Dublin, he said, will insist “there will be no fudge”.
He said his government and the pro-Brexit Northern Ireland party propping up May’s government agreed on far more than it disagreed on after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) hinted it might withdraw its support for May if she gives too much away.
However he warned the DUP that one party does not have a monopoly on the region whose voters sought to stay in the EU and that there were broad and different views among the British province’s unionists and Irish nationalist communities.
“We can’t allow one party to dictate what’s acceptable and what’s not,” he said.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin, writing by James Davey; editing by Kate Holton and Richard Balmforth