Friday 23 March 2018

Coveney urges NI businesses to lobby MPs for a soft Brexit, warning that Ireland cannot stay quiet

Minister Simon Coveney
Minister Simon Coveney
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has called on business people in the North to tell their MPs and politicians that continued membership of the single market and customs union – or something very like it - is the only way to go.

Ireland cannot stay quiet, he said, warning that "too much is at stake".

In a strongly-worded speech in Belfast, the minister said that with Labour’s shift towards a soft Brexit and the current make up of Westminster, Northern Ireland politicians have a "remarkable opportunity" to influence the UK’s final position.

He also said that "history shouldn’t be re-written" to pretend that UK voters backed leaving the single market and customs union when they voted for Brexit.

"Do not underestimate your influence here. You have real influence over the politicians that serve this community," Mr Coveney said.

"And with the current arithmetic in Westminster, and the stance now taken by the leading opposition party in the Commons, your politicians have a remarkable opportunity to influence the final approach the UK government takes."

Read more: British Labour Party makes dramatic shift on Brexit and single market

The minister told a breakfast briefing hosted by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce that Ireland cannot stay quiet.

"Too much is at stake," he said. "And for Northern Ireland, the stakes are very high indeed.

"That is one of the reasons we urgently need a restored Northern Ireland Executive. But we also need louder voices from Northern Ireland businesses, and urgently. I'm keen to hear your views now, but I'm keener still that they resonate in Belfast, London and Brussels over the weeks to come."

The breakfast event was closed to the press at the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs, which later published the minister's speech.

Brexit negotiations are continuing in Brussels after the EU told the UK it needed to get serious about the withdrawal talks.

Day two of the latest round of attempts to try and hammer out a divorce deal opened after the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier accused Britain of ambiguity on key issues like its exit bill and demanded more clarity from London.

Mr Coveney told the early morning event that the UK needs to remain a member of the Single Market and Customs Union.

"Failing that, we need a solution which sees Northern Ireland retain the benefits of the Customs Union, and the associated responsibilities. As the Taoiseach said in Queen’s earlier this month, this has been done before for key partners and friends of the European Union," he said.

He dismissed the options put forward in the UK’s recent position papers to deal with customs and the border post Brexit, saying highly streamlined arrangements “are unlikely to be streamlined enough”, while the proposed new customs partnership, in which the UK would mirror EU tariffs for imports, “could be a logistical nightmare to operate”.

"The customs partnership idea will only prove viable if the UK is prepared to not negotiate separate trade deals with third countries and instead is prepared to take advantage of new EU free trade agreements with countries like Japan or Canada.

 "Simply put, EU Member States will not countenance a partnership which allows the UK to benefit from full EU access while cutting separate deals with countries that don't share our standards or systems.

"And that has obvious implications on this island. For example, how can the UK expect to maintain an open border, an objective we all share, while asking Ireland and other EU Member States to accept that beef that doesn't meet European standards can be easily brought into Ireland from Northern Ireland without the necessary controls?"

The minister said the Irish Government was "distraught" at the UK vote to leave the EU, but that it has accepted it. But he said it won’t accept the claim that people voted explicitly to leave a Customs Union or Single Market.

"They didn't, and history shouldn't be re-written to pretend that they did," the minister said.

He told businesses that continued membership of the Customs Union and Single Market was the answer.

"And you have to tell your elected representatives that that is the case," he said.

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