I and my officials are in ongoing contact with Michel Barnier and his team on the Irish-specific issues and on the draft Withdrawal Agreement. I met with Mr Barnier on a number of occasions since taking office, most recently in Brussels on 26 February, in advance of the General Affairs Council (Article 50) on 27 February. Mr Barnier gave me an overview of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, which was published two days later, on 28 February. We spoke in detail about the draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the proposed withdrawal agreement. The draft protocol gives legal effect to the commitments agreed in December’s EU-UK Progress Report on avoiding a hard border and protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. It also includes elements on rights and on the Common Travel Area. Since they were agreed in December, we have been working closely with the Task Force to ensure that commitments and guarantees provided by the UK are reflected faithfully in draft Withdrawal Agreement. I took the opportunity to express our satisfaction to Mr Barnier with how this process was managed.
I also reiterated to Mr Barnier, the Government’s preference to resolve the Irish-specific issues through the wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK. We agreed that while both Ireland and the EU stand ready to consider proposals from the UK on specific solutions, it is necessary to have legal certainty on the backstop as part of the Withdrawal Agreement. This is a default and will only be triggered if the commitments made by the UK in phase one cannot be delivered through the wider future relationship agreement or specific solutions.
The draft Withdrawal Agreement also sets out the legal terms of the transition period, which will be hugely important for Ireland in giving certainty to individuals and businesses. We welcome that the EU has proposed that the whole of the EU acquis will apply during the transition, which means that the status quo will be preserved with the aim of avoiding any gaps or cliff edge effects between the UK leaving the EU and when a future relationship agreement enters into force.
Michel Barnier’s comment on the transition period reflects that fact that the negotiations between the EU and the UK on the transition period, which is an integral part of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, are progressing but have yet to be completed. I welcome that these discussions are proceeding at pace. The EU Task Force will provide an update on progress to the Member States following the latest round of negotiations, which conclude this week.
The European Council was clear in December that negotiations in phase two, which includes transitional arrangements, can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken in phase one are respected in full and translated faithfully into legal terms. As transitional arrangements are an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, agreement on transition will depend on agreement on the entire Withdrawal Agreement, including on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The aim is to conclude the withdrawal agreement by October and this is why it is important the UK engages positively with the Commission’s draft in the coming weeks and months. However, I am hopeful that the European Council in March will be in a position to register good progress on agreeing the fundamental elements of the transitional arrangements as proposed by the EU.