Brexit: Last push for trade deal as talks remain ‘very difficult’

Fate of Irish economy in the balance as Taoiseach puts chances of success at ‘50-50’

Negotiators are locked in a final heave to find an agreement in Brussels on trade relations between the European Union and UK that will determine the fate of the Irish economy, with just a few weeks left to go.

Talks were described as “very difficult” by those close to the negotiations, as the two teams, led by the EU’s Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost, made a last effort to bridge Britain’s desire to diverge from EU standards and the bloc’s determination to protect its market.

Member states have summoned Barnier to update them on the progress of the negotiations first thing on Monday morning, in the wake of warnings from some capitals that they could veto a compromise if it were to give Britain a permanent edge over their own domestic economies.

In a move viewed as unhelpful by Brussels and Dublin, Boris Johnson will on Monday ask members of parliament to vote for controversial legislative clauses that would allow ministers to renege on the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed with the EU last year.


The House of Lords removed the clauses from the Internal Market Bill but environment secretary George Eustice said MPs should restore them.

He told Sky News that the clauses were important as an insurance policy for Britain, particularly if the current negotiations were to end without a deal.

“Where the joint committee process between the UK and the EU fails to come up with clarity about how the Northern Ireland protocol should be interpreted, it’s absolutely crucial that the UK government has the powers to provide legal clarity,” he said.

Trust ‘undermined’

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said it would be “crazy” if the UK concluded a trade deal with the EU this week and then passed legislation that prevented it being ratified.

“Flexing muscles in Westminster may play well in terms of domestic politics in the UK but I think it has undermined trust with the EU,” said the Minister.

“I still think it is more likely than not that we will find a way to getting a deal done but I won’t be shocked if it falls apart,” Mr Coveney said en route to Brussels on Sunday night.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Sunday put the chances of a deal at “50-50” but stressed “an agreement is in everyone’s best interests”.

Asked about contingency planning around a no-deal, Mr Coveney said: “If we don’t get a deal in the next few days, then obviously there are very serious problems around ratification and timelines.”

A fishing industry source said that a three-year deal on EU fishing in UK waters – as suggested by Mr Eustice – and the loss of further access would “spell the death knell of the Irish seafood sector”.

Mr Coveney said he would not speculate on what was being offered on fishing.

Britain’s introduction of the legislation has hardened demands from the EU side for guarantees that would prevent Britain from breaking fair competition agreements after any deal was signed, leading to stand-offs over what authority could arbitrate any future disputes.

Any deal reached by negotiators must win the approval of member states and be ratified by both the British parliament and the European Parliament, a process that MEPs have warned there may not now be sufficient time left to do.

Both sides see the talks as nearing an imminent end point, with the next days to decide conclusively whether Britain will end its transition period on December 31st with a deal with its largest trading partner, or an abrupt dissolution of terms expected to cause widespread disruption.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times