Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in EU talks amid reports of border compromise

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Government Buildings in Dublin earlier today to attend an emergency cabinet meeting on Brexit 
Arj Singh, David Young and Shaun Connolly, Press Association

Jean Claude Juncker has held talks with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar minutes before meeting Theresa May for key Brexit discussions, amid reports of a major compromise to ensure there is no hard Irish border.

The European Commission president spoke to the Irish leader ahead of a lunch with the British prime minister which could have a crucial bearing on whether Brexit talks move on to trade and a transition deal by next year.

Downing Street has responded to reports of a draft agreement that there will be "regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the Republic by insisting the UK's "territorial and economic integrity will be protected".

Movement on the border issue is required for Mrs May to get the Republic's agreement to move on to critical talks on a trade and transition deal at the European Council summit of EU leaders on December 14-15.

Ms May's talks with Mr Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk on Monday could have a crucial bearing on whether she is able to secure the necessary "sufficient progress" at the Brussels summit.

Brexit Secretary David Davis has acknowledged it is an "important day".

This afternoon Mr Tusk said the two sides were "getting closer" to making the required "sufficient progress" for him to recommend that negotiations move on to trade and a transition period.

How to maintain a soft Irish border had emerged as the key sticking point to getting agreement from the EU to move on to phase two in negotiations.

Ms May's lunch with Mr Juncker comes on a deadline for "sufficient progress" set by Mr Tusk, who will also meet the British prime minister on Monday, so he can recommend that EU leaders green light trade talks at the European Council summit on December 14 and 15.

The Republic's deputy premier and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the Dublin government's concerns over the post-Brexit border were set to be addressed fully.

"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," said Mr Coveney.

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".

The two sides have appeared to be moving closer on the divorce bill and future citizens' rights but the Dublin government made clear ahead of talks that the border issue - the third area where Brussels is demanding progress - remained unresolved.

Ahead of the meetings in Brussels, Mrs May's official spokesman 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 RTÉ, he said: "RTÉ also reported this morning we were holding a Cabinet meeting and I missed that if it occurred."

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

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

But there are fears among some unionists in Northern Ireland that it could lead to the effective drawing of a new border in the Irish Sea between the province and the rest of the UK, if the British government decides it wants to diverge from EU rules.

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson, whose party is effectively keeping Mrs May in Downing Street in a confidence and supply deal with the minority Tory government, warned her not to proceed with regulatory alignment.

He told the Press Association: "I think that this is emanating from the Irish government, obviously, trying to push the UK government into a corner in the negotiations.

"It is not well thought through. I don't think, given its promises, the British government could concede on this."

Nicola Sturgeon responded to reports that Northern Ireland and the Republic could maintain regulatory alignment by saying there was no good reason that Scotland could not do the same with the EU and "effectively stay in the single market".

The Scottish First Minister 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."

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