Merkel, Irish PM say solution needed for N.Ireland border issue

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Berlin (AFP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Tuesday that the Northern Ireland border issue must still be resolved, after a deal was reached on a Brexit transition phase.

"We heard yesterday with great joy that there was a consensus... between the EU and the UK on the transitional phase," Merkel said two days ahead of a crunch EU summit on ties with post-Brexit Britain.

"But of course we know that there are still a lot of problems to resolve, especially the border issue in Northern Ireland, which is very sensitive and central," she told a joint press conference in Berlin.

Britain and the EU on Monday reached a landmark deal on the transition phase from March 29, 2019 to December 31, 2020, under which Britain won't take part in EU decision-making but will keep the benefits of the single market and customs union.

The EU insists that any divorce deal must ensure there is no "hard border" between EU-member Ireland and Northern Ireland, saying it could compromise the 1998 peace accord in the British province.

Under Monday's deal, Britain agreed to the EU's "backstop" plan for the status of the Irish border, under which Northern Ireland would remain part of the bloc's customs union if there is no better idea.

Varadkar said that a hard border "can be avoided and will be avoided" and welcomed the fact that London had now accepted the backstop option.

He said the border issue would hinge on the future EU-UK trading relationship.

"If it is something that is very close to a customs union then I think that would solve a lot of the problems related to the Irish border," he said.

"But if it is something much less and much weaker than that, then it would not."

To bring clarity, said Varadkar, "we need more detailed written proposals from the UK government, and written in such a way that they can be made legally binding and work in the context of European law."