Belfast Telegraph

Some progress on Irish Brexit issues, but UK has to present border solution: EU

‘Some way to go’ but May ‘positive’ as EU27 talks pave way for Brexit phase two

By Jonathan Bell

Some progress has been made on Irish issues affected by Brexit but the UK still has to present a solution to the border, the EU has said.

It comes as the 27 member states said enough progress had been made on divorce issues, paving the way for the second phase of talks to begin on dealing with trade.

Theresa May said she is “ambitious and positive” for Britain’s negotiations but there is still “some way to go” in the talks. The first phase of talks dealt with the Irish border, citizens' rights and the final bill the UK has to pay to leave for its outstanding commitments.

The Prime Minister was speaking after leaders of the remaining 27 EU member states gave the green light for preparations to begin for the second phase of Brexit talks, dealing with trade.

The European Council in Brussels decided that insufficient progress had so far been made in divorce talks to move on to trade discussions now, as Britain had hoped.

On Ireland, the EU said progress had been made on protecting the Good Friday Agreement, maintaining the Common Travel Area and avoiding a hard border.

But it expected the UK to "present and commit to flexible and imaginative solutions called for by the unique situation in Ireland".

Prime Minister Theresa May said there was some way to go: "On Northern Ireland we have agreed that the Belfast Agreement must be at heart of our approach and Northern Ireland's unique circumstances demand specific solutions.

"It is vital joint work on peace process is not affected in any way - it is too important for that.

"Both sides agree there can be no physical infrastructure on the border and the common travel area must continue."

At a press conference after her participation in the summit concluded – and while the remaining 27 leaders continued their discussions – Mrs May said: “I am ambitious and positive for Britain’s future and for these negotiations.

“But I know we still have some way to go. Both sides have approached these talks with professionalism and a constructive spirit and we should recognise what has been achieved to date.”

The agreement among the 27 leaders to begin preparatory work on trade talks means scoping discussions are now expected to begin in Brussels in time for the next scheduled Council summit on December 14-15.

Until then, formal discussions with the UK will continue to focus on the “divorce” issues of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and Britain’s financial settlement.

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Theresa May reaches out to place her hand on the back of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a breakfast meeting at the EU summit in Brussels (Virginia Mayo, Pool via AP)

EU leaders made clear on Friday morning that they are looking for more clarity from the UK about the size of its divorce bill before giving the go-ahead for trade talks to get under way.

But Mrs May repeatedly dodged attempts by reporters to get her to reveal the sum she was prepared to hand over to Brussels, insisting that the financial settlement could only be finalised as part of the overall Brexit deal.

She said officials were going through the issues “line by line” to decide what was owed and added: “The full and final settlement will come as part of the final agreement that we are getting in relation to the future partnership and I think that’s absolutely right, I think that can only be done in that particular context.”

Earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave an upbeat assessment of the talks, saying they were making progress “step by step”.

“I have no doubt that if we are all in clear minds… We are going to achieve a good outcome,” she said. “As far as I am concerned, I don’t hear any reason to believe that we are not going to be successful.”

Mrs Merkel said she was “highly motivated” to work on a new mandate for chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier which might permit trade talks to begin in December, but warned that the second stage of talks would be “more complicated than the first”.

On the divorce issues dealt with in the first stage, there was “by and large general agreement” on the future status of the Irish border and “headway” was being made on expats’ rights after Brexit, but Mrs May made no specific new offer on Britain’s financial settlement, she said.

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