Sunday 20 October 2019

Brexit deal: now or never, UK told

Johnson needs 'credible plan' once Conservative Party conference ends on Wednesday

British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Photo: AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Photo: AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

The Government is warning Boris Johnson that he must now table a solution to resolve the Brexit crisis within days - or risk breaking the law by not seeking an extension from the EU.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Tanaiste Simon Coveney has ratcheted up pressure on the UK prime minister, saying Mr Johnson's claim that he wants a deal will be tested this week and that a "credible proposal" must be put forward if he is "serious about getting a deal".

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Mr Coveney warned: "If there is not a serious effort on the British side to put forward a proposal that's credible, then I think we're into a very difficult space."

Without a credible solution from the UK in the coming days, Mr Coveney said that UK law is now clear that Mr Johnson would have to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline.

"The legislation in the UK is clear that if there isn't a deal then on October 19 the British prime minister has to apply for an extension," he said. "I mean that's a matter for him. I think it would be an extraordinary thing if a British prime minister didn't act in compliance with the law."

The hardening of the Government position here reflects the frustration in Dublin and Brussels that with only 32 days to go until the UK is due to leave the EU, the government in London has not tabled any proposals that the EU negotiators consider to be credible and realistic to resolve the Brexit impasse.

An Irish Government source said it was now time for Mr Johnson to outline how exactly he wants to get a deal and to do so by this time next week.

"S**t or get off the pot is the spot we're in," the source said.

Mr Coveney also fired a warning that even if a deal is done before the October 31 deadline, it will take the UK until 2023 at the earliest to leave the EU as negotiations on a free trade deal will take four years.

Amid fears that the UK could crash out in just over a month, Mr Coveney also revealed new details about the Government's secret negotiations with the European Commission on customs checks and controls in the event of a no-deal scenario.

Mr Coveney said that, while there were still a "few weeks" left in the talks, some checks and controls would not be introduced immediately, adding that there would be a "timeline" for implementation that would be agreed with the Commission.

"Some of the [single market] integrity issues will need to be dealt with, I think, immediately after a no deal happens, should that happen. I think other elements, we would get some time and space to do it over time," he said.

"There are a series of elements to the responsibility of maintaining Ireland's place in the single market, from customs to SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] to regulatory checks. So we need solutions for all of those things. Some of them are easier done than others."

This would appear to confirm previously reported comments from Government and EU sources in August that efforts to avoid chaos at the Border in the days after a hard Brexit will involve authorities 'turning a blind eye' in some areas of cross-frontier trade.

Some Irish Government officials privately believe the Commission may not immediately insist on stringent checks and controls in the weeks after October 31.

Mr Coveney is now saying there will be an agreed timetable for the rollout of some checks. However, he refused to be drawn on whether some checks will take place near the Border - as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar again said would be the case in New York last week.

Mr Coveney also told this newspaper that he would be prepared to work with a different prime minister if the political crisis in Westminster leads to Mr Johnson's resignation from office.

The Scottish National Party signalled yesterday that it could move a motion of no-confidence in Mr Johnson this week in a bid to block a no-deal Brexit at the end of October

Mr Johnson suffered a bruising week in Westminster where the UK Supreme Court ruled that his suspension of parliament was illegal, forcing the swift recall of MPs.

Mr Johnson's dismissal of female MPs' concerns for their personal safety as "humbug" during a heated House of Commons debate also drew sharp criticism from all sides. He was also referred to the police watchdog over his relationship with a US businesswoman who it is claimed received favourable treatment from Mr Johnson when he was mayor of London.

While senior Irish and EU figures do not expect any Brexit proposals from the UK government to be outlined during the Conservative Party conference, which begins in Manchester today, they are now clear that a credible plan must be brought forward in the days after Mr Johnson addresses the Tory faithful in his closing speech to conference on Wednesday.

Mr Johnson wants to remove the backstop - the guarantee of no hard border on the island of Ireland in the event that the EU and the UK can't agree a comprehensive free trade deal - from the withdrawal agreement.

But his negotiators have not outlined how this could be done while maintaining the existing soft border in Ireland.

The EU and Ireland have repeatedly insisted that anything that replaces the backstop in the withdrawal deal must achieve the exact same objectives and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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