The EU has thrown down an ultimatum to Theresa May in Brexit talks, warning that it will not open discussions about trade or other issues until the Irish border question is solved.
Speaking in Dublin alongside the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, European Council President Donald Tusk said talks would be a case of “Ireland first” and that “the risk of destabilising the fragile peace process must be avoided at all costs”.
“We know today that the UK Government rejects a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, the EU single market, and the customs union,” the Mr Tusk said.
“While we must respect this position, we also expect the UK to propose a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border.
“As long as the UK doesn’t present such a solution, it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations.
“If in London someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first before the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.”
British negotiators have long been keen to move to discussions about trade and had hoped to do so after the March meeting of the European Council in two weeks, but Mr Tusk’s latest ultimatum suggests further delays could be in store. The EU says a withdrawal agreement must be negotiated by October to give it time to ratify the deal before the UK falls out of the bloc in March 2019.
Mr Tusk recalled that the Good Friday Agreement, whose 20th anniversary is next month, had been “ratified by huge majorities north and south of the border”.
“We must recognise the democratic decision taken by Britain to leave the EU in 2016 – just as we must recognise the democratic decision made on the island of Ireland in 1998 with all its consequences,” he said, in a play on the rhetoric used by Brexiteers regarding the 2016 EU referendum.
The EU27 nations granted the UK “sufficient progress” to move to the rest of Brexit talks in the December meeting of the European Council after the UK made a commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland at all costs.
The joint report agreed by both sides stated that the UK would maintain regulatory alignment with the EU to prevent a hard border – unless another solution could be found, either specifically for Ireland, or as part of the wider trade deal.
Since that agreement, however, the UK has ruled out a trade deal solution by reiterating its commitment to leave the customs union and single market, has ruled out a customs border between the province and Great Britain, and has not produced detailed specific proposals for avoiding a hard border. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has also poured cold water on the issue, downplaying the UK’s commitment to avoiding a hard border in a letter to the PM.
Mr Tusk’s ultimatum raises the prospect that trade talks will be delayed even further beyond March, when they had been expected to start following the next meeting of the council.
In her Mansion House speech last week Ms May agreed that the UK had “a responsibility to help find a solution” to the border issue. But she reiterated ideas such as ”streamlined processes, including a trusted trader scheme” and said they would be “consistent with our commitments”. The EU has suggested that these ideas are not serious.