Monday 15 July 2019

Backstop trouble: first cracks in the EU's solidarity with Ireland on Brexit

  • Poland breaks ranks with EU to propose five-year limit
  • Development that will seriously worry officials in Dublin
  • Poland’s foreign minister warned Ireland has the most to lose from ‘no deal’
  • May says looking forward to exploring Polish proposal for backstop time limit
Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May during a bilateral meeting in Brussels
Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May during a bilateral meeting in Brussels
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

THE first cracks in the EU’s solidarity with Ireland on Brexit have emerged after Poland suggested the ‘backstop’ could have a five-year limit.

In a development that will seriously worry officials in Dublin, Poland’s foreign minister warned that Ireland has the most to lose from a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario.

Jacek Czaputowicz said the UK and Ireland were playing a "game of chicken" over the border that would end with a "frontal collision" unless a compromise was made.

He said a temporary backstop, like the one being sought in the UK, would be better for Ireland than no deal which would inevitably result in a hard border.

Theresa May said she was looking forward to exploring a proposal put forward by Poland's foreign minister for a time limit on the Irish backstop.

"I look forward to exploring in more detail the proposals that have been put forward by the Polish foreign minister on this particular issue of dealing with the backstop," May told parliament when asked about the comments.

However, Irish officials were pointing to comments from the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier who said the existing Withdrawal Agreement is the best deal possible for the UK.

After a meeting in Brussels with Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Mr Barnier also dismissed UK proposals for a  bilateral relationship between Ireland and the UK.

“We are working as 27. As a single team,” he said.

However, that comment was undermined by Mr Czaputowicz in an interview with a Polish newspaper.

He said: “If Ireland appealed to the EU to change the agreement on the backstop in the agreement with the British so that it would apply temporarily, let's say five years, the matter would be solved.

"Of course, this would be less beneficial for Ireland than an indefinite backstop, but much more favourable than the non-contractual Brexit, which inevitably approaches."

A spokesperson for the Tánaiste said Mr Czaputowicz did not raise this issue when they both attended a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels today.

“He did however raise it during a meeting in Dublin in December and it was made clear to him that a backstop with a time limit would not work.

“The European commission has said the same.”

The spokesman added: “Poland has endorsed the Withdrawal Agreement in its entirety at December’s European Council. What we need now is to hear from the British government and the House of Commons.”

At a press conference in Brussels, Mr Coveney said he had previously made it “very clear” to his Polish counterpart that “putting a time limit on an insurance mechanism effectively means its not a backstop at all”.

He Czaputowicz’s comments don’t reflect EU thinking on a wider level.

But Mr Coveney said said he could understand why an a Polish minister would be anxious to find a resolution given the number of Polish people living in Ireland and the UK.

Mr Czaputowicz went on to question the hardline stance being adopted by the Irish government.

“[The Irish] thought that the United Kingdom would at some point agree to an indefinite backstop, which did not happen.

“And now we have a game of a chicken, two cars are running on each other and we will have a frontal collision. As a consequence, Ireland will lose the most and it will be obliged to provide the EU external border, i.e. with Northern Ireland," he said.

Warsaw is one of the UK's closest allies within the EU and has repeatedly spoken out in support of Theresa May and her Brexit proposals - although has always been slapped down.

Last September at the General Affairs Council, Poland’s Europe minister raised the risk of Ireland causing a ‘no deal’ but was swiftly countered by heavyweight core countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Today, Mr Barnier said the Withdrawal Agreement, which has been rejected by the UK parliament, is the “best deal possible”.

Speaking to RTÉ, he insisted the focus was now on the future relationship and the Political Declaration.

He said the EU is willing to be more “ambitious” with the Political Declaration but the overall agreement cannot be changed.

"It's now for the UK leaders to build this stable and political majority for a deal.  We are waiting for the next steps, and are ready to work again on the political declaration,” he said.

More to follow

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