Coveney pushes UK for 'legal text' on Border deal putting further pressure on May
The Government is pushing for a settled "legal text" with the UK over the Border question as early as next month in a move that threatens once again to derail the Brexit negotiations.
Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is understood to have made the Government's uncompromising position clear to his counterparts, putting further pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May to make hard decisions on the future relationship between the State and United Kingdom.
It comes as leaked European Commission documents show Brussels intends to punish Britain if it refuses to submit to EU law during the Brexit transition period by stripping British businesses of their access to the single market.
The Border will be one of the items on the agenda when the Mrs May's inner Brexit cabinet convenes this morning for the first of two meetings this week to try to agree her government's position over Britain's future relationship with Europe.
Pressure by Mr Coveney is seen by the UK as a threat to unravel the delicate diplomatic text over the Border question that was orchestrated in December following three days of intense talks between Dublin, London and Brussels.
In that agreement, the UK maintained that it would keep Northern Ireland in "full alignment" with Europe's single market - but only as a last resort, if other solutions to the problem could not be found.
British negotiators argue that the combination of Northern Ireland's devolved decision-making processes and some technical customs arrangements could be enough to make good on their commitment to avoid a damaging 'hard Border'.
Irish officials have chosen not to completely close the door to those solutions but they made clear Ireland wants the "full alignment" option to be enshrined in a detailed legal agreement as its fallback option.
"Like the UK, we have consistently said that it is our preference to resolve these issues through the wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK," said a senior Government official.
"However, in case this is not possible, we must at the same time ensure legal certainty in the withdrawal agreement that reflects the commitments made by the UK in phase one of the negotiations."
Ireland's demand for certainty suggests that British optimism that the Border question could be resolved as part of a broader discussion about trade and customs is misplaced.
Failure to reach an accommodation also risks delaying a deal on a transition agreement in March if Ireland convinces other EU states to use the transition deal as leverage to force the British to clarify their positions.
Leaked European Commission documents translating the EU's hardline stance on the transition period into legal language exposed fears that Britain would break European laws during the transition period.
This would effectively freeze the UK's membership of the single market and customs union for about two years after Brexit.
EU countries that break the bloc's law can be taken to the European Court of Justice, but such cases typically last much longer than the transition period of about two years.
The European Commission wants to create a way of denying market access if Britain adopts the tactic of simply waiting out any judgment until the end of the transition period.