Monday 16 September 2019

Ireland 'in eye of storm' as EU won't budge on backstop

Putting his foot in it: French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Elysée Palace in Paris. Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson
Putting his foot in it: French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Elysée Palace in Paris. Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson

Hugh O'Connell and Cormac McQuinn

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is coming up against opposition from the French to his demand for the backstop to be stripped out of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop were "genuine, indispensable guarantees" to preserve the Irish peace process and the EU single market as he met with Mr Johnson in Paris yesterday.

Mr Johnson's diplomatic offensive ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz this weekend appears to have yielded little progress as he insisted the backstop, which guarantees no hard Border on the island of Ireland, must go or the UK will leave without a deal on October 31.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who Mr Johnson met on Wednesday, downplayed suggestions the UK had 30 days to find an alternative to the backstop.

Mr Johnson interpreted comments by Ms Merkel at a joint press conference in Berlin to mean he was being given a one-month deadline to find a solution.

But the chancellor said yesterday: "It is not about 30 days. The 30 days were meant as an example to highlight the fact that we need to achieve it in a short time because Britain had said they want to leave the European Union on October 31."

Mr Macron also poured cold water on the idea as he stood beside Mr Johnson at the Elysée Palace yesterday.

"We will not find a new withdrawal agreement within 30 days that will be very different from the existing one," he said.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Simon Coveney admitted Brexit had put Ireland in "the eye of the storm".

Speaking in Denmark, he said: "The British government has said it wants to look at alternative arrangements that can do the same job as the backstop and of course we will listen to that and I think other European countries will do so too because we all want to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

"But I think the messaging is clear, it's consistent and it's been firm from the EU that the deals that have been put together through many, many hours and days and weeks and months of negotiation are not going to be brushed aside now in an effort to get a deal."

He said Brexit was an "extraordinary disruptor" and a delicate balance was struck with the Withdrawal Agreement which is something the EU is "not willing to unwind".

He added the solidarity shown by the remaining EU member states had been "very strong on that".

Mr Coveney said efforts will be made to reach an agreement with the UK by the October 31 Brexit deadline.

"Ireland unfortunately is in the eye of the storm here because it's issues on the island of Ireland that seem to be the source of disagreement at the moment," he said.

"We'll work to try to change that but I do want to make it very clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is not up for renegotiation."

The comments came after a meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod.

The Government here is said to be "quite relaxed" about Mr Johnson's interpretation of remarks made by Ms Merkel.

A source said the backstop has always been an insurance mechanism that it is hoped is never used and the Withdrawal Agreement already says it can be replaced if a workable solution to avoiding Border infrastructure is brought forward.

But so far, no such acceptable solution has been found.

"Let's see what London comes up with in 30 days and put it to the test of preventing border infrastructure and related checks," the source said.

Meanwhile, a majority of MLAs in the defunct Northern Assembly have written a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, outlining their support for the backstop.

The 49-strong group, made up of MLAs from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance and the Green Party, said a legally operable guarantee is needed to protect the Good Friday Agreement, prevent a return to physical infrastructure at the Border, and preserve the all-island economy.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the letter was not signed by any unionist party, which showed the extent of opposition within unionism.

"Those who peddle scare stories about barbed wire and soldiers on checkpoints are being irresponsible," Mr Donaldson said.

"Neither London nor Dublin has any plans to go back to the borders of the 70s and 80s."

Irish Independent

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