Brexit border talks end in no deal

BREXIT talks have broken up in Brussels without a deal, after a proposed solution for the Irish border met fierce resistance from the DUP.

Discussions are set to resume later this week, with both British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker declaring themselves "confident" that a solution can be found in time for a key summit of the European Council on December 14.

Mrs May began her lunchtime meeting with the Commission president with hopes high that Brussels would be able to declare that sufficient progress had been made on the so-called "divorce issues" in order to allow the leaders of the remaining 27 EU nations to give the green light for trade talks to begin next week.

But reports that Mrs May was on the verge of agreeing a deal on "regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland the Republic led the DUP to warn it would not back any agreement which threatened the territorial integrity of the UK.

Mr Juncker said the meeting was "friendly and constructive".

He went on: "I have to say that she's a tough negotiator, and not an easy one, and she's defending the point of view of Britain with all the energy we know she has, and this is the same on the side of the European Union.

"Despite our best efforts and significant progress we and our teams have made over the past days on the three main withdrawal issues, it was not possible to reach a complete agreement today.

"We now have a common understanding on most relevant issues, with just two or three open for discussion.

"These will require further consultation, further negotiation and further discussions.

"We stand ready to resume the negotiations with the United Kingdom here in Brussels later this week.

"But I have to say that we were narrowing our positions to a huge extent today, thanks to the British Prime Minister, thanks to the willingness of the European Commission to have a fair deal with Britain.

"I'm still confident that we can reach sufficient progress before the European Council of December 15.

"This is not a failure, this is the start of the very last round. I'm very confident that we will reach an agreement in the course of this week."

Mrs May said: "We have had a constructive meeting today. Both sides have been working hard in good faith.

"We have been negotiating hard. And a lot of progress has been made. And on many of the issues there is a common understandng.

"And it is clear, crucially, that we want to move forward together. But on a couple of issues some differences do remain which require further negotiation and consultation.

"And those will continue, but we will reconvene before the end of the week and I am also confident that we will conclude this positively."

DUP leader Arlene Foster said earlier that her party, which which props up Theresa May's Tory minority government, would not allow "any form of regulatory divergence" from the UK.

She spoke out after Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the Dublin government's concerns over the post-Brexit border with Northern Ireland were set to be addressed fully, amid reports Britain would allow "regulatory alignment" between north and south.

Mrs May did not comment on the reports as she arrived for a key working lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker, which was followed by talks with European Council president Donald Tusk.

How to maintain a soft Irish border has emerged as the key sticking point to getting agreement from the EU to move on to phase two in Brexit negotiations, but Mr Tusk said today that progress was "getting closer".

Regulatory alignment could mean both Ireland and Northern Ireland following the same rules governing trade, to ensure that goods can continue to move freely across a "soft" border with no checks.

But Ms Foster made clear the DUP would oppose the deal if it meant the effective drawing of a new border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK if the British government decides it wants to diverge from EU rules.

Speaking at Stormont, she said: "We note the speculation emanating from the European Union exit talks regarding the Republic of Ireland and United Kingdom border.

"We have been very clear. Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.

"We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom.

"The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not be compromised in any way.

"Her Majesty's Government understands the DUP position.

"The prime minister has told the House of Commons that there will be no border in the Irish Sea.

"The prime minister has been clear that the UK is leaving the European Union as a whole and the territorial and economic integrity of the United Kingdom will be protected.

"We want to see a sensible Brexit where the Common Travel Area is continued, we meet our financial obligations, have a strictly time-limited implementation period and where the contribution of EU migrants to our economy is recognised in a practical manner.

"The Republic of Ireland claim to be guarantors of the Belfast Agreement but they are clearly seeking to unilaterally change the Belfast Agreement without our input or consent."

After she finished her statement, Ms Foster did not answer a reporter's question about the status of the confidence and supply deal.

Earlier, Tánaiste Mr Coveney said: "The indications we have is that we are in a much better place now than we have been in the negotiations to date. The legitimate concerns that Ireland has been raising for months are going to be addressed fully."

He added: "These discussions are moving in the right direction. I hope we are in a place this evening where Irish people north and south will get reassurance from the wording that is very close to being finalised now."

Mr Coveney told RTÉ Radio One he believed that the post-Brexit border will be "invisible" with "no barriers" and "will look very much like it looks today".

Mrs May smiled and shook hands with Mr Juncker as she arrived in Brussels but did not respond to reporters' questions.

Just before the lunch, Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk spoke to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar by telephone.

The reports of a deal on regulatory alignment prompted Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to insist it would leave no reason why other parts of the UK could not effectively stay in the single market.

She tweeted: "If one part of UK can retain regulatory alignment with EU and effectively stay in the single market (which is the right solution for Northern Ireland) there is surely no good practical reason why others can't."

David Trimble, former leader of the Ulster Unionists and ex-Northern Ireland first minister, said he was left "shocked" and "scratching his head" at reports of a deal allowing continued regulatory alignment across the border.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "We need to see the detail of this. I think it's a thoroughly bad idea. If this operates purely on a Northern Ireland basis, it's going to put Northern Ireland businesses ... potentially, at a very significant disadvantage.

"Because, they would be locked into European regulatory provisions, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom, which is their major market, is free from those, and may have different regulatory provisions entirely."

Told that he sounded shocked by reports of a deal, Lord Trimble said: "Yeah, I am, yes. Because, potentially, this is very bad news for Northern Ireland, if it happens."

Lord Trimble said he hoped that one side was giving a particular version of what was being agreed in order to try to influence events.

"I hope that there is still an opportunity for the prime minister to claw back from what is being said to the media at the moment."

Asked about how his colleagues in Parliament would react to such a deal, Lord Trimble, who sits as a Conservative peer, said: "I am surprised and I think my colleagues in Parliament will be surprised too.

"I am hoping that the reality is somewhat different from what is being reported.

"If it is as has been suggested, then I think this is a very, very big issue indeed."

In Westminster, Brexit Minister Steve Baker and Mrs May's chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, are expected to update Tory MPs on Brexit negotiations in Parliament at 4pm, a senior party MP told the Press Association.

London's Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted: "Huge ramifications for London if Theresa May has conceded that it's possible for part of the UK to remain within the single market & customs union after Brexit. Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU and a similar deal here could protect tens of thousands of jobs."

Earlier, Mrs May's official spokesman said any agreement on the Irish border would protect the "territorial and economic integrity" of the UK.

Ahead of the meetings in Brussels, he told a regular Westminster briefing: "The PM has been clear that the UK is leaving the European Union as a whole and the territorial and economic integrity of the United Kingdom will be protected."

Responding directly to questions about the report of agreement on regulatory alignment by Irish broadcaster RTE, he said: "RTE also reported this morning we were holding a Cabinet meeting and I missed that if it occurred."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had been due to make a statement on the developments on the steps of Government Buildings in Dublin at 2.30pm but his appearance was postponed at short notice, apparently due to the fact that talks in Brussels were continuing.

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