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Gove's remarks on backstop suggest softening on Brexit


British Environment Secretary Michael Gove Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

British Environment Secretary Michael Gove Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

British Environment Secretary Michael Gove Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Leading Tory Michael Gove has said the proposed Brexit backstop should apply for only a "short period of time" after the UK-EU divorce.

His comments may be a further sign of a "softening" by a majority in the London government towards arrangements which could stave off a return of the Irish Border.

Theresa May's government has agreed to have a "backstop" to avoid this eventuality. This is in case its two preferred means of avoiding such an outcome - a good longer-term EU-UK trade deal, or new customs technology - don't work out.

The fear among more radical Brexiteers, like Mr Gove, who is the environment minister, and Boris Johnson, the foreign minister, was that drifting towards "the backstop" could become a kind of rolling semi-EU membership for Britain.

There remains a strong feeling that a clean Brexit has to happen swiftly if it is ever to happen. But signals from Britain over the last week were that not much may change until after 2022.

After Brexit nominally happens in March 2019, a transition period already planned would extend by two more years beyond the originally signalled timeframe of December 2020.

It is reported that Mrs May has persuaded her divided cabinet to agree that the backstop would involve the UK remaining bound by the EU's customs union rules after December 2020, when the original transition is due to end. It appears Mr Gove (inset) and other cabinet Brexiteers agreed to this plan as a last resort.

On BBC radio yesterday, Mr Gove said that what was envisaged was just "a temporary infill".

So what does "temporary" actually mean?

"It means what it says on the tin. That temporary means not permanent. It means for a short period of time. I'm not going to pre-empt the eventual position that we take after we have negotiated with the European Union and with Ireland," he said. He also compared it to a home buyer on expensive bridging finance while awaiting a regular mortgage.

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Tánaiste Simon Coveney was asked about Mr Gove's remarks and said he didn't think it helpful to interpret comments by individual UK ministers. But he and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have been clear they want to see "new thinking" coming from the British side of the negotiations.

Mr Coveney said he would withhold judgment until he saw a "proposal in writing" from London. He said Britain had clearly committed last December to the "backstop" operating if nothing better was agreed.

He said it was important the British government was accorded the "time and space" to consider its options. But time was not in abundant supply.

"We don't have much time here. This is all coming to a head now," the Tánaiste said.

Asked whether he was optimistic there would be enough progress by the decisive EU leaders' summit on June 28 and 29, he said: "I think that there are a lot of good people working on that.

"The politics of this in Westminster is very difficult - that's no secret - but I do think there is a very real effort going on now to try to deliver progress in June. We obviously are contributing to that. The taskforce is anxious to see that as well, and I think the British government is working towards trying to do that.

"I don't think everything will be agreed by the end of June but I think if we could make significant progress, particularly in relation to some of the customs discussions that have been taking place in the context of a legally operative backstop then I think that would be a big step forward and that's obviously what we're encouraging."

Hints persist that there could be a result in June.

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