An agreement on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) will be difficult to reach before the end of 2018, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said on Tuesday after a meeting in London with his British counterpart, Jeremy Hunt. Keeping Northern Ireland in the European Customs Union would enable the solution of the impasse over the border between the British region and EU-member Ireland, according to the Belgian Foreign Minister. However, this issue remains a problem for the British, he explained, admitting that there were increasing fears of a no-deal.
Reynders was in the British capital for a two-day mission on 5-6 November. In addition to Foreign Minister Hunt, he also had meetings with the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, and the Minister of State for Africa, Harriet Baldwin.
Both meetings were related to Belgium’s participation in the UN Security Council in 2019-2020. Reynders wrote on Twitter that during his exchange with Lord Ahmad, they discussed “priorities such as sexual violence in conflict, peacekeeping reform, children in armed conflict and the abolition of the death penalty”. With Ms. Baldwin, discussions focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, the Sahel and other African issues, he said.
The Belgian Foreign Minister also had a working lunch with London business leaders “to discuss the Brexit challenges on both sides of the [English] Channel”.
The Irish border is arguably one of the toughest of these challenges. While the EU and the UK agree on the need to prevent a return to a hard border, they continue to differ on how to achieve that. The EU has proposed to keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union as a backstop solution if there is no agreement by December 2020, at the end of the transition period that should follow the British withdrawal, scheduled for 29 March 2019.
However, the British Government has consistently rejected the backstop solution, suggesting instead that a customs agreement linking the EU and the U.K. as a whole could be worked out pending the signing of a broader free-trade treaty.
Reynders said that in the absence of agreement on the issue, a border will reappear in Ireland. He said the possibility existed that the British Government could finally come up with a solution but there was then the fear that it would not get past the British Parliament, where Prime Minister Theresa May seems particularly weakened.
With the date for the British withdrawal fast approaching, Belgium is also preparing for a no-deal situation, while still hoping that a solution can be found with London, Reynders said.
The European Commission has also taken steps to put in place regulations to avoid bottlenecks in strategic areas in the event of a no-deal.