Monday 22 July 2019

Brexit talks: Theresa May - 'I am clear..we are not going to be trapped permanently in a single customs territory'

  • Negotiations on knife-edge after meet between Barnier and Raab broke up without breakthrough
  • Theresa May says Irish backstop cannot derail Brexit
  • Coveney 'frustrated and disappointed' as he calls on Theresa May to honour 'backstop' commitments
  • Varadkar: 'No deal’ will be "really bad for Ireland, relatively bad for EU but quite a disaster for the UK"
Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP
Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP
Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Tánaiste Simon Coveney Photo: Mark Condren

Louise Kelly and Kevin Doyle

UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that her government has been clear and "cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom".

Speaking to parliament on Monday afternoon following the failure of the weekend Brexit talks, Mrs May said that she needs to be able to look British people in the eye and say this backstop is temporary.

"I am clear..we are not going to be trapped permanently in a single customs territory," she said.

Brexit negotiations are on a knife-edge after a hastily-arranged meeting on Sunday between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab broke up without a breakthrough.

Planning ahead for Brexit: Tánaiste Simon Coveney
Planning ahead for Brexit: Tánaiste Simon Coveney

Discussions were said to have broken down after EU negotiators demanded a "backstop to the backstop" to prevent a return of a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed the backstop - which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the single market while a permanent solution is found - should apply to the whole of the UK.

However it is understood the EU is insisting it should be backed up by the original Northern Ireland-only backstop as it first proposed.

That could lead to customs checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - effectively imposing a "border in the Irish Sea" - something Mrs May has said is unacceptable.

On Monday, Mrs May said that Britain and the European Union should not allow their disagreements over the Irish border leave the two sides facing a no-deal Brexit.

"We cannot let this disagreement derail the prospects of a good deal and leave us with a no deal outcome that no-one wants," May told parliament.

She said that a future economic partnership should provide solutions for Northern Ireland and that the backstop is intended to be an insurance policy for the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"We will be working to ensure the point when we no longer need a backstop comes as soon as possible," she said.

Earlier Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that a ‘no deal’ Brexit will be "really bad for Ireland, relatively bad for the European Union but quite a disaster for the United Kingdom".

Mr Varadkar said there is still time to secure a withdrawal agreement despite the latest round of negotiations hitting a stalemate over the border question.

However, he admitted it could now be December before we see the vital breakthrough.

"Nobody knows for sure. The date on which the UK leaves the European Union is the end of March next year. Any withdrawal agreement requires parliamentary approval.

"In order to meet that timeline we’d have to have a deal before the end of this year. The initial target was October, that’s now slipped to November," he said, adding that if it can’t be done next month there is a regular meeting of EU leaders scheduled for December.

Asked whether there is still room for the EU to compromise on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’, Mr Varadkar replied: "We’re always open to compromise. As the European Union, of course we are.

"But there are some fundamentals that we can’t compromise on and that is the need for the United Kingdom to honour the commitments it made last December which is that we will have a withdrawal agreement and as part of that there must be a legally operable and legally binding assurance that no matter what happens, that no hard border will emerge on the island of Ireland."

He said this country is preparing for a 'no deal' scenario "even though we don’t believe it’s the likely outcome".

"We’re hiring the necessary customs, veterinary and other officials who are making the necessary adaptions to the ports and airports that would be needed in an ‘no deal’ scenario and also needed in a deal scenario.

"The difference in a no-deal is that the changes will be greater and they won't be quicker.”

Mr Varadkar added: "We are at a sensitive stage at the moment. I know some people were optimistic about an agreement on the withdrawal and on protocol this week. I always thought that was unlikely. I figure November or December is probably the best opportunity for a deal. It’s a dynamic situation."

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Arriving in Brussels for an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, Tanaiste Simon Coveney said Dublin and the EU simply wanted Theresa May to follow through with backstop agreements already made in March and December.

He told reporters "a backstop can't be time-limited", adding: "The backstop will be there unless and until something else is agreed, but unless you have something to replace it well then the backstop needs to be there as an insurance mechanism.

"That is all we are asking for, that's all the Michel Barnier taskforce is also looking for now in terms of legal text.

“I think we are frustrated but we’re still pretty calm about that.

“I think everybody would have liked to see clarity this week on the withdrawal agreement. Time is moving on. Ratification mechanisms are going to take time.”

He said a “real effort” had been made over the past 10 days by the two negotiating teams so that a set of recommendations would be ready for this Wednesday.

“We want to see an outcome here that settles nerves and brings a sensible Brexit.

“For us it’s about following through on the commitments that have already been made. We’re not looking for anything new here,” he said.               

Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster is meeting Leo Varadkar for a private dinner in Dublin this evening.

It is understood she will stress a desire for a strong relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to continue post-Brexit.

She will tell Mr Varadkar that she wants to see a deal that works for both jurisdictions.

It is understood Mrs Foster will seek to strike a conciliatory tone with Mr Varadkar after a year that has seen relations between the pair fray over Brexit.

On her visit to Dublin, Mrs Foster will also meet Micheal Martin, the leader of main opposition party Fianna Fail.

She also will meet a leading cardiologist to discuss a cross-border heart service that treats children from both sides of the border and visit St Patrick's Church of Ireland cathedral.

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