A solution to the Brexit Northern Ireland border problem realistically needs to be found before the European Council summit at the end of June, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief has said.
Guy Verhofstadt said the October deadline Britain is working to would be “late” for a deal on the border because other issues also needed to be agreed by the autumn.
Mr Verhofstadt was speaking on Wednesday morning as UK Brexit Secretary David Davis admitted that a “substantial” agreement on the future relationship would need to be reached by October to avoid MPs rejecting the plan.
But Mr Davis said on Tuesday that the UK was aiming to get a deal on Ireland “agreed by October”.
Speaking at a hearing of the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee, the Brexit coordinator Mr Verhofstadt said: “Our hope is that we can find in June already, an agreement on this.
“I have seen, heard that David Davis has said maybe October. I think October is late because in October we need to be ready with the whole withdrawal agreement – including Ireland, plus already a declaration on the future relationship.
“If you look to the agenda the best way forward is that this problem is solved as fast as possible, before the June European Council.”
Speaking to the wider issue, he added: “It’s clear that the ball is now in the court of the UK to come up with a satisfactory solution. Until now that is not the case … For the moment we still have no proposal made by the UK side that could be a satisfactory solution for the problem.”
European Commission sources said there would be no official June deadline for a deal but that given the circumstances there was a need to make progress quickly.
British diplomats in Brussels are confident that a solution can be found, and say they want to make progress as quickly as possible – but that solving the issue needed discussions on the future relationship, which only started last week after months of insistence by the UK.
MEPs used the committee hearing Mr Verhofstadt was speaking at to bemoan the British approach to talks so far. Mairead McGuinness, an Irish MEP from the governing Fine Gael party who represents border communities, said there was “a deep sense of unease” about the lack of progress on the border problem.
Northern Ireland Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson added: “On the one hand they’re saying something and then on the other hand they’re doing something completely different. I think the problem is that the negotiations haven’t stopped in London with London. They’re still in conflict among themselves and therefore they haven’t really negotiated with the EU yet.”
Brussels has consistently said that the whole withdrawal agreement, including citizens’ rights, the financial settlement, transition period, and Northern Ireland border needs to be agreed by the October meeting of the European Council in order to give time for the deal to be scrutinised and approved by bodies such as the European Parliament.
The Council, a quarterly Brussels summit attended by the 28 EU heads of state and government, generally has to sign off major decisions made by the European Union. With Britain set to fall out of the EU on 29 March 2019, the only real opportunity for the Council to approve any deal after October would be a further summit in December. The next summit is scheduled for 21 March 2019, a date both sides want to avoid dragging talks out until.
Speaking on a visit to Northern Ireland earlier this week, David Davis said: “As we leave the EU it’s essential both the UK and EU do what it takes to keep the border, which I saw this morning, free from physical infrastructure. We are determined to get this agreed by October.” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has previously said he would prefer a deal to be done properly by October than done badly in June.
There has been very little progress on the border issue in the March meeting of the European Council, with Downing Street admitting this week that it had produced no new solutions in talks on the issue and instead continued to argue for a proposal first made in August last year.
Commenting last week on the talks at a regular briefing of journalists in Westminster, the prime minister’s spokesperson told reporters: “The two proposals we have put forward remain the basis for our negotiation position and what the PM set out at Mansion House.”