November 30, 2017

By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Council President Donald Tusk will fly to Dublin on Friday afternoon for talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar as a deadline looms for a Brexit deal with Britain on the Northern Ireland border.

A spokesman for Tusk, who chairs EU summits and is overseeing the Brexit process, said in a tweet on Thursday that the 4 p.m. (1600 GMT) meeting would “discuss #Brexit and how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland”.

Britain’s Times newspaper, without citing a source, said Britain had this week proposed to devolve more powers to the government of its province of Northern Ireland so that it could ensure regulations there did not diverge from EU rules holding south of the border across the island.

Avoiding a hard customs border which might rekindle sectarian violence in the north has been a key demand of the EU and Ireland, who want Britain to give details of how it will ensure “no regulatory divergence” after Brexit in March 2019.

Tusk last week set an “absolute deadline” of Monday for British Prime Minister Theresa May to deliver “sufficient progress” in improving London’s divorce offer if EU leaders are to authorize negotiations on a future free trade deal and on a largely status-quo, two-year transition period after Brexit.

May will hold talks in Brussels on Monday with EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker and his chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. If that meeting produces “sufficient progress” on three key EU conditions — a financial settlement, rights of expatriate citizens and the Irish border — then leaders could give a green light to trade talks at a summit on Dec. 14-15.

Barnier said on Wednesday the summit would be able to discuss a transition period and that the EU would define a “framework” next year of the “new partership” with Britain that would follow the transition.

May has insisted she wants any new offers to be met with simultaneous assurances from the EU that it will maintain the open trading relationship which businesses are demanding to know soon if they are to maintain investment levels in Britain.

EU officials and diplomats have in recent weeks been scoping out terms for a transition and various kinds of free trade agreements — work intended to speed up the start of talks on those issues in anticipation of agreement to open the second phase of Brexit negotiations at the December summit.

The precise timing of a formal offer of a transition, which EU officials have long said will essentially mean Britain staying in all EU programs but without a vote, is unclear but could come as early as January, officials have said — though it would only be binding once the divorce deal is signed and ratified by both parliaments, probably in early 2019.

Negotiations on a future trade deal are likely to take some weeks to get going after the December summit, as the EU will first have to go through a process of drafting guidelines for negotiators — although the basic outline of what might be on offer is already fairly plain.

(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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