Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, issued a stark warning that the progress of the Brexit negotiations was at great risk of even further delay, during a day of stinging public rebukes for Theresa May as she met sceptical EU leaders at a Swedish summit.
The Irish taoiseach emerged from a frosty bilateral meeting with May at the European social summit and said: “I can’t say in any honesty that it’s close – on the Irish issue or on the financial settlement.”
Varadkar said he would not be prepared to back progress of the Brexit negotiations to trade talks at the summit in December without a formal written guarantee there would be no hard border in Ireland. Britain, he said, “wants a divorce, but an open relationship the day after”.
At the summit in Gothenburg, the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, gave the UK government an ultimatum that progress needed to be made on the Irish border and the financial settlement. Tusk also hit back at suggestions by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, that the UK needed to see more compromise from Brussels: “I appreciate Mr Davis’s English sense of humour.”
May spoke to several European leaders on the fringes of the social summit including France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven. Government sources admitted it was clear from the meetings that more work was needed to make progress, though they insisted the tone was constructive.
Leaving the summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, May told reporters she agreed that more needed to be done to advance the negotiations. “But we are clear and I am clear that what we need to do is move forwards together and that’s how we can ensure that we are going to get the best deal for the UK and for the EU,” the prime minister said.
Tusk said the UK needed to do more on the two key issues. “While good progress on citizens’ rights is being made, we need to see much more progress on Ireland and on the financial settlement,” he told a press conference in Gothenburg.
He said he had told May in an earlier bilateral meeting that “this progress needs to happen at the beginning of December at the latest”, and that he hoped some movement will have been made by the time the two leaders meet again next Friday.
The president said the EU was ready to move on to the second phase of the Brexit talks, which will discuss the future trade relationship and transition period. These are due to begin, with the approval of the council, at its next summit in Brussels on 14-15 December. Later he told reporters he was “cautious but optimistic” that talks could still progress.
Tusk’s deadline of the beginning of December will give May some crucial extra time to build consensus in Europe and around her own cabinet table, particularly over the financial settlement. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, had initially said Brussels needed to see progress by next Friday.
Downing Street said May’s meeting next Friday with Tusk was pre-arranged and would take place in Brussels at the Eastern Partnership summit.
Varadkar’s warning was the most blunt, though the EU is likely to take the lead from Ireland when it assesses whether enough genuine progress has been made on the issue of the border with Northern Ireland, one of the three key topics which must be agreed before talks progress to trade.
“We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past,” Varadkar said before his meeting with May. “We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”
Leaving the summit several hours later, Varadkar said he was not satisfied with the progress. “After 40 years of marriage, most of them good, now Britain wants a divorce, but an open relationship the day after,” he told Sky News. “We have heard now for 18 months … that the UK does not want a hard border in Ireland. But after 18 months of the right language we need to understand how that can be achieved in law.”
“We don’t have a counter-proposal from the UK government yet which makes any sense, but we would certainly welcome one,” he said.
Earlier at the summit, Varadkar was scathing about UK politicians who had backed Brexit: “It’s 18 months since the referendum. It’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”
A UK government source said it had been “clear from the outset there will be no hard border”, but admitted that significantly more progress was needed before the two countries would see eye to eye. Sources referred to several official documents already released by the UK government that made commitments on the Irish border.
EU leaders must agree that sufficient progress has been made on three key areas before talks can move on to a future trade deal. They are the UK’s financial settlement with the EU, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe, and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
If it is not agreed at the December summit that sufficient progress has been made, it may mean no progress is guaranteed until the next scheduled European council meeting in March.
In the UK, internal discussions of the financial settlement were still taking place. Boris Johnson, backed by other cabinet Brexiters, has been arguing for the government to refuse to make a firm offer to settle Britain’s EU liabilities before receiving assurances about the outlines of a future trade deal. Johnson regards the financial settlement as one of the government’s strongest negotiating cards, which it would be folly to play upfront.
That would appear to fly in the face of the “sufficient progress” condition placed by the EU. Anand Menon, the director of thinktank UK in a Changing Europe, said: “This is for the birds. The EU has made quite clear that there’s a sequence.”
The foreign secretary and his allies are also pressing for more clarity within the cabinet at home about the nature of the deal the government hopes to achieve, before they are willing to back the idea of pushing the potential bill above €20bn (£18bn).
“It’s about a conversation about ‘what is the end state?’”, said one Johnson ally. “If we’re going to stump up a significant amount of taxpayers’ money we should know what we’re getting in return.”
Davis would also like assurances about a future trade deal. But he is said by allies to be more relaxed about the ultimate size of the bill because he did not play a leading role in the Vote Leave campaign and is not personally associated with the pledge of £350m for the NHS.
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