Donald Tusk says Ireland must come first in Brexit negotiations with UK

Posted By: March 09, 2018

 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and EU Council president Donald Tusk hold a press conference at Government 

Buildings in Dublin yesterday PICTURE: Niall Carson/PA 

Tony  Bailie. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, March 9, 2018

EUROPEAN Council president Donald Tusk has insisted the EU will put “Ireland first” in the ongoing row over post-Brexit border arrangements.

After talks with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin yesterday, Mr. Tusk insisted the border issue must be resolved before a broader Brexit settlement on trade relations between the UK and EU can be reached.

Theresa May has rejected EU proposals for Northern Ireland to effectively to remain in the customs union.

But Mr. Tusk warned yesterday that progress in Brexit talks could be put at risk if there was any “backsliding” by the UK on the deal reached between the prime minister and Jean-Claude Juncker in December.

Britain has so far failed to bring forward “specific and realistic” alternative proposals to keep the border open without activating the EU’s “backstop” option, he said.

Mr. Tusk also poured cold water on British chancellor Philip Hammond’s hopes for a free trade agreement covering the financial sector, warning any post-Brexit deal will not offer the same access for services as for goods.

The European Council president was speaking in Dublin after talks with Mr. Varadkar, who held out hopes for an “evolution” in the UK’s position as negotiations on the future relationship get underway.

At a joint appearance, Mr. Varadkar welcomed the EU’s assurance that it would approach negotiations “with an open and positive, constructive mind that will allow for a possible evolution of the UK position in the future, allowing ours to evolve as well.”

But on the specific points of contention, Mr. Tusk gave little ground to the UK position set out in high-profile speeches by Mrs. May and Mr. Hammond in recent days.

In response to the Chancellor’s call on Wednesday for a bespoke free trade agreement (FTA) including financial services, Mr. Tusk said: “In the FTA we can offer the trade in goods with the aim of covering all sectors, subject to zero tariffs and no quantitative restrictions.

“But services are not about tariffs. Services are about common rules, common supervision and common enforcement, to ensure a level playing field, to ensure the integrity of the single market and ultimately also to ensure financial stability.”

Brexit Secretary David Davis has accused the European Commission of “putting the cart before the horse” over Ireland by setting out detailed plans for regulatory alignment north and south of the border. He insisted that the issue can best be dealt with as part of upcoming talks on the future relationship.

But Mr. Tusk said it was up to the UK to “propose a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border.”

“As long as the UK doesn’t present such a solution, it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations,” he said.

“If in London someone assumes that the negotiations can deal with other issues first before the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.”

He warned: “We have to be clear that any backsliding on the commitments made so far would create a risk to further progress in Brexit negotiations. 

“This also applies to the question of avoiding a hard Border.”