May and Tusk discuss post-Brexit EU/UK trade deal

28 February 2018, 23:06

Theresa May is meeting EU Council President Donald Tusk in Downing Street, as Brexit tensions ratchet up over the question of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

On Wednesday the Prime Minister warned the EU that a draft legal text proposing a "common regulatory area" on the island of Ireland, which would in effect keep Northern Ireland in EU Customs Union, would risk the constitutional integrity of the UK.

The proposals were the first draft of the EU's legal articulation of an agreement reached between the UK and EU in December, which included a UK commitment to maintain full regulatory alignment with the EU's single market and custom union to prevent a hard border if that goal is not achieved by either a trade agreement or other technical solutions.

Addressing MPs, Theresa May said "no UK prime minister could ever agree" to the proposals as set out.

Mrs May chaired a special meeting of her Cabinet before hosting President Tusk for a working lunch in Number ten.

Mr Tusk is expected to have presented the Prime Minister with the draft guidelines of the EU's negotiating position on the final UK-EU trading relationship, which is set to be discussed once the terms of a transition period have been agreed.

If adopted by the remaining EU 27 countries at the next EU Council summit in March, the guidelines will become the mandate for EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier as Brexit talks progress later this year.

Mrs May is expected to set out the UK government's negotiating position for final UK-EU trading relationship in a major speech on Friday.

The speech follows last week's meeting of the Brexit sub-committee of the Cabinet at Chequers, the Prime Minister's Buckinghamshire retreat, in which an agreement was reached between key figures to pursue a policy that has been described as "ambitious managed divergence".

This would likely mean the UK would choose to align with EU standards in certain sectors, such as the automotive industry, where maintaining unchecked supply chains is seen as a priority, but retain the ability to diverge from EU rules and regulations in others.

Following the intervention on Wednesday from former Prime Minister Sir John Major, in which he called for MPs to be given a free vote on any final Brexit deal and warned the Government their negotiating position was "not credible", Tony Blair will also make a Brexit speech later today.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Blair will make the case that Brexit will be bad for the EU as well as the UK, and urge European leaders to bring about reforms on areas such as immigration, that could persuade the UK to change course.

"Europe knows it needs reform. Reform in Europe is key to getting Britain to change its mind," Mr Blair is expected to say.

"If at the point Britain is seized of a real choice, not about whether we like Europe or not - the question of June 2016 - but whether on mature reflection the final deal the British Government offers is better than what we have, if, at this moment, Europe was to offer a parallel path to Brexit of Britain staying in a reforming Europe, that would throw open the debate to transformation."