EU Said to Seek `Strong Signal' on Ireland Before Brexit Moves

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union wants a strong signal from the U.K. that it’s prepared to engage with the Irish border issue before allowing Brexit talks to move on, according to a diplomat familiar with the bloc’s thinking.

The intractable issue of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit was temporarily fixed in December. But when the EU started translating a political pledge into the legal language of a treaty, the contradictions of the December fix were clearer than ever. Now both sides are back to where they were last year, trying to square the U.K.’s desire to ditch the EU’s rule book with the aim of avoiding a hard border on the divided island.

“Any backsliding on commitment made so far would create a risk to further progress in Brexit negotiations,” EU President Donald Tusk told reporters in Dublin. “If in London someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue my response would be: Ireland first.”

The U.K. is hoping for an agreement at an EU summit this month on the transition period, an arrangement that businesses are keen to pin down so they’ll have time to prepare for the shift to new trading rules and regulations that Brexit will bring. Talks on the future trading relationship are due to start after the summit.

Unacceptable

The EU last week published a draft withdrawal text which sets out in great detail a so-called fallback option to avoid a hard border emerging on the island of Ireland after Brexit. If a future trade deal between the EU and U.K. isn’t comprehensive enough to avoid a hard border, then Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the Republic of Ireland.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May instantly rejected it as something no British prime minister could accept. She hasn’t presented an alternative solution but has made clear she wants to engage in talks to find one.

The issue doesn’t need to be resolved fully at this month’s meeting of EU leaders, as the withdrawal agreement doesn’t have to be concluded until October, according to the diplomat, who asked not to be named as deliberations are ongoing. But May needs to show she’s serious about finding realistic solutions.

Read more: Why Ireland’s Border Is Brexit’s Intractable Puzzle

The EU will oppose any weakening of the language in the draft, according to the person. The question is whether anything can be added to the text to allowed the process move on.

The U.K. should present new text to the EU to break the potential logjam in Brexit talks, according to Arlene Foster, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s government in London.

The current draft “has omissions and overreaches,” Foster told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday after meeting with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. “There will be a need to negotiate.”

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