Brexit timetable in jeopardy as Theresa May fails to reach deal on Irish border ahead of EU deadline
Theresa May will go into a crunch meeting with EU leaders on Monday admitting she is yet to find a solution to the Irish border problem, as a Cabinet minister suggested for the first time that Brexit might not happen. Mrs May has until Monday night to meet an EU deadline for Britain to make “satisfactory progress” on the issues of money, citizens’ rights and the border in order to trigger trade talks this month. She had hoped the meetings in Brussels with Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk would be the moment when trade talks would be unlocked, but Government sources were highly pessimistic about the prospect of a breakthrough, leaving the entire Brexit timetable in jeopardy.
It came as Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, told Tory rebels that if they did not back Mrs May in the negotiations “we will have no Brexit”. With just 10 days to go until next week’s European Council summit, when EU leaders will decide whether trade talks can begin, Mrs May is rapidly running out of time to keep Brexit on track. With no agreement in sight between London, Dublin and Belfast on the border issue, the Prime Minister is now likely to ask for a last-minute extension to the Monday deadline. Whitehall sources bitterly complained that Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, had “moved the goalposts” by insisting on guarantees over the future border arrangements now, having earlier said the issue could be thrashed out once trade talks were underway.
Ireland is holding out for an assurance that it will have “regulatory convergence” with Northern Ireland, effectively meaning the border would move to the Irish Sea. But the DUP, on which Mrs May relies for her Parliamentary majority, says it will not accept anything that is similar to staying in the customs union or the single market. One Government source said there was “absolutely no prospect” of ministers going against the DUP’s wishes, adding: “The things that the Irish government wants us to sign up to are things that no British government could sign up to.”
Mr Hunt’s warning is aimed at Tory backbenchers who have hinted that they would vote against a deal that involved paying £40 billion or more for the Brexit bill or gave the European Court of Justice any powers in British law after Brexit. Such a scenario would risk ousting Mrs May from Downing Street and triggering a general election that could, if Jeremy Corbyn emerged as the victor, result in Labour calling a halt to Brexit. Mr Corbyn said over the weekend that he has not yet decided whether Labour would hold a second referendum on Brexit if it won power. Mr Hunt is the first Cabinet minister to raise the prospect that Brexit might not happen, and his comments reflected nervousness within Conservative ranks as today’s crucial meeting approached. Mrs May will travel to Brussels with David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, who will meet the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Mr Barnier will compile a report on Wednesday on whether “sufficient progress” has been made, which will be sent to the leaders of the other 27 EU member states before they meet at the EU Council on December 14 and 15. Mrs May is desperate for the EU Council to agree for trade talks to begin, as any further delay would mean talks being unlikely to start before March, when the council next meets – a full year after Article 50 was triggered and only 12 months before Britain formally leaves the EU. She may now ask Mr Barnier to delay today’s deadline by 24 hours, though Whitehall sources said they believed they had until the date of the EU Council meeting to solve the Irish border issue. Ireland is threatening to veto trade talks unless Britain guarantees there will be no hard border, but Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader in Parliament, said any solution that involved an all-Ireland customs regime would force Northern Ireland “further and further away” from its main market, the UK.
He said the Irish government had adopted an “aggressive stance” on Brexit which was “causing real damage to Anglo-Irish relations”. He added: “They can’t impose what is a good solution for the Irish Republic on the rest of us.” Asked if the DUP might threaten to withdraw its support for Mrs May’s Government, he said: “The DUP doesn’t need to issue any threats whatsoever, because we’re very very clear that the Goverment understands that anything that results in the undermining of the Union… we wouldn’t go with that.” Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was equally firm, telling the BBC: “We cannot allow some kind of collateral damage or unintended consequence of Brexit to have the recreation of a border.”