Three stumbling blocks to a Brexit deal

VIDEO: REUTERS
Protesters lobbying outside Parliament in London to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, after Brexit. Irish border communities making their anti-Brexit feelings clear. The border issue is the last hurdle before Brexit trade talks c
Irish border communities making their anti-Brexit feelings clear. The border issue is the last hurdle before Brexit trade talks can start. PHOTO: REUTERS
Protesters lobbying outside Parliament in London to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, after Brexit. Irish border communities making their anti-Brexit feelings clear. The border issue is the last hurdle before Brexit trade talks c
Anti-Brexit demonstrators in Parliament Square during the "People's March for Europe" in London in September.PHOTO: REUTERS
Protesters lobbying outside Parliament in London to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, after Brexit. Irish border communities making their anti-Brexit feelings clear. The border issue is the last hurdle before Brexit trade talks c
Protesters lobbying outside Parliament in London to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, after Brexit. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON - The UK voted for Brexit in June last year and is due to leave the European Union (EU) in March 2019, but negotiations have been deadlocked over three so-called separation issues: the status of expat citizens, the "divorce" bill and the Northern Ireland border.

The Irish border has emerged the most contentious issue after Brexit negotiations hit a major snag on Monday (Dec 4) over the future of the 499km border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

A hard-line Northern Ireland party that is a crucial ally of Prime Minister Theresa May pulled its support at the last minute from a compromise deal.

It denied Mrs May a much-needed breakthrough in the stalled Brexit talks. It frustrated leaders of the EU, who increasingly appear to have the upper hand in the discussions.

And it underscored yet again Mrs May’s political vulnerability at home, and the complexity of the task facing her as Britain tries to unscramble more than four decades of European integration.

Britain and the EU have said they are confident of reaching an agreement later this week so as to facilitate the opening of trade and transition talks at a summit on Dec 15.

Here's a detailed look at the Irish border row and two other obstacles that have stalled the talks.

IRISH BORDER

Dublin, backed by the rest of the EU, wants a written guarantee from the UK that Northern Ireland (part of the UK) will continue to follow EU rules - so goods can continue to move freely across the border that separates Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Monday (Dec 4) Ireland could not go into a second phase of Brexit talks without "firm guarantees that there will not be a hard border".

Under the terms of the Brexit negotiations agreed at the start of the summer, the UK must solve the border issue before it can move on to discussing its future relationship with the EU.

Dublin, which has a veto,  has indicated it is prepared to use it if no accommodation can be found that avoids a return to border controls.

Before Mrs May entered the talks on Monday, her government appeared to have reached a compromise that would effectively allow Northern Ireland to behave as if it were to remain in the single market and customs union, while technically leaving, along with the rest of the UK.

The compromise was intended to help prevent the re-emergence of a "hard border" at the frontier. That “hard border” was once a major source of sectarian friction; it was dismantled after the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that ended decades of violence in the area.  Observers fear that reimposing border controls could revive tensions. 

But on Monday the Democratic Unionist Party, a faction that has emerged, following snap polls in June this year, crucial to the ability of Mrs May’s Conservatives to command a majority in Parliament, rejected that compromise. 

Party members acknowledge the case for continued economic links with Ireland, but are deeply suspicious of any proposals that would confer a special status on Northern Ireland that could draw it away from the mainland. 

DIVORCE BILL

Brexiteers and europhiles reacted angrily last week when reports emerged that Britain will pay up to €55 billion (S$88 billion) - more than double its initial offer - to cover the EU's outstanding obligations in order to exit the bloc.

Brussels has long demanded that Britain must pay for its share of the budget until it leaves the bloc in March 2019, and then for future commitments made while it was a member.

The exit bill was previously the most contentious issue.

CITIZENS' RIGHTS

A deal is also close on the rights of more than three million Europeans living in Britain, though there is still disagreement over whether they would be protected by the European Court of Justice – a red line for Brexit supporters in Britain.

The UK has agreed that those who already have permanent residence will not have to pay to apply for settled status.

SOURCES: NYTimes, Reuters, BBC News, AFP

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline 'The three contentious issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe