The Irish government is not immediately ready to approve Brexit talks moving on to the next phase although progress has been made, an Irish minister said at the start of a crucial day for the negotiation process.
Helen McEntee, Ireland’s Europe minister, said a “huge amount of work” had been done over the weekend to try to iron out proposals for a future Irish border, one of the issues that must be addressed before Brexit talks can move on to discussing a future trade relationship.
The Irish cabinet was meeting on Monday morning before Theresa May’s crunch meeting at lunchtime in Brussels with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.
“Unfortunately I don’t think that we will have an absolute final text that we will be able to approve,” McEntee told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “However, for us there are a number of key issues that we have wanted to see progress on that I know progress has been made over the weekend.”
May will be joined by David Davis, the Brexit secretary, in Brussels. Speaking before he departed, Davis told the BBC that it was “an important day”.
“We’ve put seven months of work, both sides, into getting to this point, and we’re hoping that Mr Juncker, today, will give us sufficient progress so we can move on to trade talks,” he said.
“The decision, of course, won’t be taken until 15 December, but that’s what we’re hoping for. Trade talks are of enormous importance in the United Kingdom and Europe.”
Ireland’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said a deal on the Irish border was still achievable.
He confirmed no deal had been struck on how to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland but said talks were at a “sensitive” stage and there was still time for an agreement.
“We are not quite yet where we want to be, but it is possible to do that [agree] today,” he told Morning Ireland on RTE national radio. He added: “The Irish government has to remain firm on the key issues.”
Coveney told RTE that the special Irish cabinet meeting called on Monday morning would discuss a draft proposal from May.
He said: “A text has been looked at by our negotiating teams and the EU taskforce negotiating teams.”
He said a draft proposal had been achieved last Thursday but there had not been agreement by Ireland on all issues and, despite conversations continuing until late on Sunday night, there was still an impasse over some unspecified aspects.
The Brexit focus on Monday will be split between Dublin and Brussels. The Irish cabinet met on Monday morning but no statement was expected until further last-minute talks with British negotiators. Meanwhile, May will have lunch with Juncker and then see the European council president, Donald Tusk, before returning to London.
If there is progress, the UK and EU could issue a joint statement on Monday afternoon, with May expected to update MPs on Tuesday.
May will be delivering the UK’s final offer on the three main issues in the first round of Brexit talks – citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border, with the latter proving the most intractable.
She had been given a deadline of Monday 4 December to table offers before a European council summit on 14 December, when EU leaders would decide if “sufficient progress” had been made to proceed to the next phase of talks, on a future trading relationship.
Asked what else Ireland was seeking as reassurance that a hard border could be avoided after Brexit, McEntee said more work was needed from the UK.
“My belief – and I think we would all agree in the government in Ireland – is we need to have something that is much clearer than we’ve had to date,” she said. “What has been very welcome is to have that commitment that there can be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“However, we have always said in order for that to happen there cannot be any divergence in the regulatory framework.”
Asked if she was seeking the impossible from the UK, McEntee said all the Irish government was asking for was “for the UK government to fulfil their commitment” to no hard border as set out in May’s Florence speech.
McEntee said it was “not just a customs issue”, but also had to be tackled to avoid any future unrest. “We’re talking about a return to something of the past where there were huge troubles,” she said. “We do not want anything that would trigger any kind of a return to the difficulties of the past.”
Asked whether she was optimistic, McEntee said: “I do believe that we are nearing closer progress, and sufficient progress. We are not there yet. That is why we are meeting as a cabinet this morning to look at where we are, to assess where we are, to look at what is being presented and to see what we need to do to move forwards.
“If there is not enough that has been given to us yet, it is up to the UK government to produce that, to provide that.”
Owen Paterson, one of a quartet of senior Conservative hardliners on Brexit who set out a series of “red lines” for May at the weekend, warned that he would accept “no special arrangements” for the Irish border.
Paterson, who was formerly Northern Ireland secretary, told Today: “It would be disastrous for the Belfast agreement to put a line down the Irish Sea and to have Northern Ireland hived off with some separate standards, as some people in the Dublin political establishment are asking for. That would be really very damaging.”
He said a “soft” border could be maintained by carrying out customs checks at the point of shipment, with technology tracking goods crossing the frontier.
This article was written by Peter Walker and Lisa O'Carroll, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th December 2017 10.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010