Visit is Tusk’s second to Ireland in the past three months amid Brexit tension
Resolving the Irish border is the biggest sticking point in the Brexit talks
Tusk and Varadkar have so far maintained a completely united front on Brexit
Donald Tusk today warned Britain all 27 EU nations are united in their determination to secure a deal for Ireland before trade talks.
Standing alongside the Irish premier Leo Varadkar, Mr Tusk demanded an ‘explicit, specific’ solution to the border.
The EU’s fall back position is keeping Northern Ireland inside EU rules – something considered impossible by London and Belfast despite a political agreement in December with Theresa May.
Britain has long insisted working out rules on trade after Brexit is essential to clarifying how the open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will function.
In his press conference, Mr Tusk also rejected calls from Chancellor Philip Hammond yesterday for the Brexit trade deal to be the first ever to include financial services.
The hard-hitting message risks chilling British optimism of a breakthrough at an EU summit later this month.
Mr Tusk said: ‘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 applies also to the question of avoiding a hard border.
‘When I was in London last week, I heard very critical comments by Prime Minister May and others about the way the Irish border issue was presented in the draft withdrawal agreement.
‘We know today that the UK Government rejects a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, the EU single market and the customs union.
DUP leader Arlene Foster tears into Tony Blair and Sir John Major over the Troubles
Arlene Foster today tore into Tony Blair and Sir John Major over their bid to use the threat of violence returning to Northern Ireland as a ‘bargaining chip’ in Brexit talks.
The DUP leader said the warnings that quitting the EU could reignite the Troubles was an ‘insult’ to people who live in Northern Ireland.
Her comments are a fiery rebuke to the two former Prime Minsters who have both claimed Brexit will endanger the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.
Mrs Foster said the EU must sign up to a sensible plan which would see no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic or the rest of the UK.
She told the British Chambers of Commerce’s conference in London today: ‘I want to see an optimistic, sensible and pragmatic approach to Brexit,’ she said.
‘I object in the strongest possible terms to people who have limited experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland throwing threats of violence around as some kind of bargaining chip in this negotiating process.
‘To do so is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland who worked so hard to bring peace to our country.’
‘As long as the UK doesn’t present such a solution, it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations. If in London someone assumes that the negotiations can deal with other issues first before the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.’
Mr Varadkar said that his preference was ‘to avoid a hard border through a wider future relationship between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the European Union’.
He said: ‘We are committed to playing our part in exploring this option or alternative specific solutions in a way that respects the structure of these negotiations.
‘That will of course require further detailed progress to be put forward by the UK Government.
‘However, we must have certainty that if a better option proves unachievable, the backstop of maintaining full alignment in Northern Ireland with the rules of the single market will apply, in order to protect the North’s co-operation and avoid a hard border.’
Mr Tusk’s visit comes before the European Council meeting of EU leaders on March 22-23 on Brexit and economic affairs.
It is his second visit to Ireland in three months and he told reporters in between he had spoken to every other EU leader about the Irish border questions.
Turning to Mr Hammond’s call for a services trade deal yesterday, Mr Tusk said: ‘I heard the Chancellor’s words about financial services being very much in the mutual interest of the UK and the EU.
‘I fully respect his competence in what is defining what is in the UK’s interests, however he’ll have to let us define what is in the EU’s interest.’
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney has suggested the EU could block Theresa May’s plans to maintain a soft Irish border while leaving the customs union.
One fallback option is the UK would have to accept keeping Northern Ireland in an effective customs union with the EU.
This is Mr Tusk’s second visit to Ireland in three months.
He has already pledged that the EU will stand with the Republic on the Irish border issue and Dublin’s efforts to ensure frictionless passage of people and goods.
Northern Ireland’s position post-Brexit is holding up agreement on Britain’s exit terms and a transition deal.
Mrs May’s supporters in Government, the Democratic Unionists, are adamantly opposed to any settlement distinguishing Northern Ireland’s EU trading relationship from the rest of the UK’s post-Brexit, what some have termed a border in the Irish Sea.
On Thursday Mr Varadkar will also hold a separate meeting with the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria.
Discussions will cover the OECD’s latest economic survey of Ireland and the potential for deeper Ireland-OECD co-operation.
Meanwhile, Department for Exiting the EU minister Robin Walker is due to meet Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo on Thursday, and Cabinet Office minister David Lidington is hosting a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee with representatives of the devolved administrations.
Theresa May and the EU effectively fudged the Irish border issue in the Brexit divorce deal before Christmas.
But the commitments to leave the EU customs union, keep a soft border, and avoid divisions within the UK were always going to need reconciling at some stage. Currently 110million journeys take place across the border every year.
All sides in the negotiations insist they want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but their ideas for how the issues should be solved are very different.
If they fail to strike a deal it could mean a hard border on the island – which could potentially put the Good Friday Agreement at risk.
The agreement – struck in 1998 after years of tense negotiations and a series of failed ceasefires – brought to an end decades of the Troubles.
More than 3,500 people died in the ‘low level war’ that saw British Army checkpoints manning the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Both London and Dublin fear reinstalling a hard border – whether by checkpoints or other means – would raise tensions and provoke a renewal of extremism or even violence if people and goods were not able to freely cross.
The DUP – which opposed the Good Friday Agreement – is determined to maintain Northern Ireland inside the UK at all costs, while also insisting it wants an open border.
The UK blueprint:
The PM has made clear her favoured outcome for Brexit is a deep free trade deal with the EU.
This would mean being aligned closely enough with the bloc that there is no need for customs checks.
Any remaining gaps in customs regulations as a would be covered with technological solutions.
That is likely to mean cameras and electronic records, which would arguably not constitute major physical infrastructure.
Boris Johnson has suggested that a slightly ‘harder’ border might be acceptable, as long as it was invisible and did not inhibit flow of people and goods.
However, Brussels has dismissed these ideas as ‘Narnia’ – insisting no-one has shown how they can work with the UK outside an EU customs union.
The EU blueprint:
The divorce deal set out a ‘fallback’ option under which the UK would maintain ‘full alignment’ with enough rules of the customs union and single market to prevent a hard border and protect the Good Friday Agreement.
The inclusion of this clause, at the demand of Ireland, almost wrecked the deal until Mrs May added a commitment that there would also be full alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
But the EU has now translated this option into a legal text – and hardened it further to make clear Northern Ireland would be fully within the EU customs union.
Mrs May says no Prime Minister could ever agree to such terms, as they would undermine the constitutional integrity of the UK.
A hard border:
Neither side wants a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
But they appear to be locked in a cyclical dispute, with each adamant the other’s solutions are impossible to accept.
If there is no deal and the UK and EU reverts to basic World Trade Organisation (WTO) relationship, theoretically there would need to be physical border posts with customs checks on vehicles and goods.
That could prove catastrophic for the Good Friday Agreement, with fears terrorists would resurface and the cycle of violence escalate.
Many Brexiteers have suggested Britain could simply refuse to erect a hard border – and dare the EU to put up their own fences.