May Breaks From Key Juncker Lunch to Call Northern Irish Ally

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May broke away from her key lunch meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to call the head of the Northern Irish party that has threatened to bring down her government if she strikes a Brexit deal that betrays their interests.

A person familiar with the situation said May called Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster in the middle of lunch. The meeting then resumed, the person said. Foster earlier made a robust statement to reporters, making clear her red lines when it comes to Brexit.

Juncker and May met after chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier told European lawmakers that a breakthrough was imminent. Three divorce issues need to be settled before talks can at last move on to the trade deal that Britain craves. One of the issues is what happens to the Irish border when Northern Ireland leaves the EU along with the U.K.

The pound rose earlier on expectations of an imminent deal. A breakthrough would mean that 17 months after the referendum, Brexit talks can finally move on to the future trading relationship and the crucial transition arrangement that U.K. businesses are desperate to secure.

The two sides are planning a joint statement, which will refer to the three divorcec issues, according to another person familiar with the situation. Both sides want an agreement that will allow leaders to give the green light to the start of trade talks at a summit on Dec. 14.

EU President Donald Tusk said both sides are “getting closer to sufficient progress” on the divorce issues being declared this month. He was due to meet May this afternoon, though the meeting has been delayed as lunch ran on.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which allows May to govern, reiterated its position on Monday that it won’t allow a border to go up between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Last week the party threatened to bring May down if it didn’t like the border deal. The DUP’s raison d’etre is to keep Northern Ireland fully integrated into the rest of the U.K. and it cares more about that than a hard frontier with the Republic of Ireland. Dublin wants to make sure there’s no border on the island of Ireland.

“We have been very clear. Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” Foster said.

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