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Juncker warns May time is running out to solve Irish border issue holding up Brexit deal

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker speaking alongside Irish PM Leo Varadkar (Reuters)

Jean-Claude Juncker has warned Theresa May that time is running out to resolve the impasse over the Irish border issue that risks bringing down the whole Brexit deal.

The European Commission President urged the UK government to take “major steps” towards finding solutions on outstanding issues – most importantly how to guarantee there will be no hard border in Ireland.

With just four months to go before the deadline for a Brexit deal, he warned: “The hardest parts are still to do and there is not much time left to find a concrete agreement.”

Yahoo has revealed that just 5% of Brexit issues were resolved over the last three months and there are just four months left to conclude the 22% of work that remains.

MORE: Just 5% of Brexit issues resolved over three months

Juncker made the comments in a joint press conference with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the start of a two day visit to Dublin to discuss Brexit issues.

It comes a week before a European Council summit at which EU leaders are set to “express concern” that “no substantial progress has yet been achieved” over the Irish border.

Varadkar said: “Let me be blunt: there isn’t much time left if we are to conclude an agreement and have it operational by the time the UK leaves the European Union next March.

“There is now an urgent need to intensify our efforts if we are to get there.”

Irish PM Leo Varadkar (left) and EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker (right) conduct a joint press conference (Reuters)

Juncker later told the country’s parliament that the EU has an “Ireland first” policy when it comes to Brexit negotiations.

He rejected Theresa May’s proposal for a temporary customs union to act as a backstop because it was time limited and remade the case for the EU’s proposal for a backstop that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market and customs union.

Juncker said the EU side would be “pragmatic” about finding a solution that worked for both sides, but said the UK needs to bring forward its plans quickly.

“We have less than 10 months to Brexit,” he said. “We need more answers and fewer new questions.”

MORE: EU steps up preparation for cliff edge Brexit amid stalemate on Irish border

In response, a DExEU spokesman said:  “We’re committed to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, as well as avoiding any borders within our United Kingdom, and have set out our proposal on the customs element of a temporary backstop.

“This would only be used in very specific circumstances and be time-limited. It remains our intention to achieve a close economic partnership that does not require the backstop to be in operation.”

Despite the stalemate, Juncker said he did not consider a ‘no deal’ scenario likely, although admitted that the EU is making preparations for one “just in case.”

On the future relationship, Juncker said the UK and EU would remain “friends, partners, allies.”

But he added: “The reality is that there is no arrangement outside the European Union that is as good as membership. “This simply does not exist.”

Yahoo UK has requested a response from the UK Government.