UK and EU negotiators are increasingly optimistic that sufficient agreement on the future of the Irish border can be reached in the coming days to progress Brexit talks to the next stage.
Sources indicate the ground has now been laid for political agreement on the question of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland after Brexit, which would allow both sides to start discussing the UK’s future trading relationship with the bloc.
“Yesterday was a substantial breakthrough and has given everyone a sense of optimism that a landing zone is in sight,” said an EU source familiar with the negotiations.
Theresa May has been given until Monday, when she meets the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to table satisfactory offers on three issues – the divorce bill, Ireland and EU citizens rights – before Brexit talks can move to a second phase.
Sources say that, behind the scenes at official level, the potential draft wording is being circulated, although the “magic formula of words has yet to materialise”.
It is understood there has been an acceptance on the British side over the need to “clear a pathway” towards a solution and a “recognition that the issue of regulatory divergence has to be addressed” in relation to Ireland. Of particular concern is whether the UK would try to pursue a different, light-touch approach to the regulation of agri-business after Brexit.
On the Irish side there is recognition that , now is the time of maximum leverage to secure an agreement and that “a good deal for the UK is a good deal for Ireland” because Britain is Ireland’s largest export market.
Both sides hope they can find a mutually agreed set of words that will allay Irish fears about the return of a hard border, while leaving the final details to be determined once there is a clearer sense of what trade relationship the EU will have with the UK after Brexit.
The negotiations had descended into a war of words this month after an internal EU paper suggested that it was essential for Northern Ireland to remain in the single market and the customs union to avoid a hard border.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, reiterated government policy that Britain would leave the customs union and the single market on exiting the bloc. The Democratic Unionist party, which holds the balance of power in the House of Commons, said it would not tolerate anything that decoupled Northern Ireland from the UK.
But since then there have been more positive developments. Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said on Wednesday that “progress is being made”, though differences remain.
“We are not at a decision point at the moment. Things are changing on a daily basis and are rapidly evolving,” said Varadkar.
While Ireland’s situation has generated sympathy in the rest of the EU, there is also wariness about any special arrangement on the border that could give British companies, and smugglers, a backdoor into the EU market, or compromise EU standards on animal welfare.
“There is a lot of solidarity for Ireland here, but everyone is worried about the issue,” said one diplomat. “If there is no border we might as well do away with the internal market. The UK is already the biggest source of counterfeit goods.
“It brought ‘mad cow disease’, it is not like they have a glorious past to lean on. Everyone is very worried about this for very good reasons.”
The UK environment secretary, Michael Gove, has said that while he would like to see the British regulatory regime diverge from the rest of the EU, animal welfare standards are likely to be strengthened, not weakened.
There is concern on both sides that if there is regulatory divergence, cross-border trade and social cohesion that has flourished since the Good Friday agreement will be jeopardised. Agriculture leaders in the region have said that farmers, who get 87% of their income from EU subsidies, will be wiped out by Brexit if cross-border production in milk, cheese, meat and livestock is disrupted.
One senior EU source said the final agreement was unlikely to emerge before the weekend as the Irish push for last-minute concessions before the progress meeting between May and Juncker on Monday. “The Irish want to extract some kind of commitments from the UK that are more than a general promise about the fact that you could maintain regulatory convergence on the island,” they said. “The question is how detailed should this be and how it should be formulated.”
All sides are agreed on their objective to move forward without jeopardising peace in Ireland and there is widespread agreement on continuing the longstanding “common travel area” that allows free movement between the two countries.
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