Brexit breakthrough – but border issue kicked into long grass

Prime minister Theresa May with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

Prime minister Theresa May with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Brexit negotiations will move on to trade talks after the European Commission agreed 'sufficient progress' had been made.

The DUP finally gave the green light after changes were made to the wording of the proposals over the Irish border.

Leader Arlene Foster said she had been 'negotiating directly with the Prime Minister' into the early hours and received 'very clear confirmation that the entirety of the UK is leaving the EU, leaving the single market, leaving the customs union'.

Speaking in Brussels Theresa May said the agreement ensured there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa.

The Prime Minister said there would be no special arrangements for Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK would be leaving the single market and customs union in an apparent U-turn from her position earlier in the week. But sources suggested the deal could mean regulatory alignment between the whole of the UK and EU after Brexit.

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The official wording outlines the desire of both sides that any final trade deal will apply to the whole of the UK but if that fails the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland will be considered. This means that both the UK and EU have effectively parked the thorny issue.

The breakthrough will likely ease the pressure on May for now but the ambiguity of the statement could spook hardline Brexiteers.

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Foster said the proposal included 'substantial changes' to the plan which was rejected by the DUP on Monday.

'We think that there have been substantial changes made to that text since Monday,' Foster added. 'As you know, on Monday we were unhappy with the text when we received it in late morning. We felt there wasn't enough clarity, particularly round the very important issue of access to the GB market.

'There have been changes right throughout the text and we believe there have been six substantive changes.

'For me it means there's no red line down the Irish Sea.'

Theresa May and David Davis arrived in Brussels to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier before dawn this morning.

The meeting follows a flurry of diplomacy by May yesterday and overnight that fuelled speculation that an agreement on plans to maintain a soft Irish border was edging closer.

Juncker said the decision on whether to move forward to talks on trade and the transition to a post-Brexit relationship was in the hands of the leaders of the 27 other EU nations, meeting in Brussels at a European Council summit on Thursday, but said he was 'confident' they would do so.

The Commission president said: 'I will always be sad about this development, but now we must start looking to the future, a future in which the UK will remain a close friend and ally.'

May said that intensive talks over the past few days had delivered 'a hard-won agreement in all our interests'.

The Prime Minister said that the agreement would guarantee the rights of three million EU citizens in the UK 'enshrined in UK law and enforced by British courts'.

She said that it included a financial settlement which was 'fair to the British taxpayer' and a guarantee that there will be 'no hard border' between Northern Ireland and the Republic, preserving the 'constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom'.

She said that the agreement between the UK and the Commission, being published in a joint report, would offer 'welcome certainty' to businesses.

Ireland's deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said the government was content at assurances it had achieved about avoiding a hard border. He said there was now 'no scenario' that would result in new border checkpoints.

'Ireland supports Brexit negotiations moving to phase two now that we have secured assurances for all on the island of Ireland,' he said.

He said the deal 'fully protected' the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process and an all-Ireland economy.

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