Friday 17 January 2020

No EU-UK trade deal by end of 2020 'would be seen as massive failure' for Johnson, warns Tánaiste

Focused: Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Focused: Tánaiste Simon Coveney. Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It will be seen as a "massive failure" for Boris Johnson's leadership if he cannot secure a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.

With the UK having finally come on board with the Withdrawal Agreement, the focus will shift in the coming weeks to what Irish negotiators believe will be an even more difficult phase of Brexit.

The two sides must come to arrangements on their future relationship in a string of complex areas including fisheries, data and aviation.

"I think it's going to be really difficult to get it all done in 11 months but that's what we move into from the first of February," Mr Coveney said.

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In an interview with the Irish Independent, the Tánaiste revealed he wants to continue as Foreign Affairs Minister after the next election - provided Fine Gael is still in power.

He notes that "in many ways" the past two years have seen him become "the Brexit Minister, as opposed to the Foreign Minister".

"And so there's a lot I'd like to do in the Foreign Affairs brief and in Northern Ireland if given the opportunity."

Mr Coveney recalled a "long discussion" he had with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after losing the Fine Gael leadership contest in 2017.

"First of all, we agreed to avoid a split in the party which often happens after the leadership contest. And, you know, he effectively asked me what did I want to focus on. He recognised that after a leadership contest like that, a change in portfolio made sense.

"I could see that Brexit was going to become a huge issue. I didn't realise it was going to become quite as big a negotiation as it turned out to be. But certainly it excited me. I saw huge risks to the country."

He said he wanted to continue working on Brexit and that even with the Northern Ireland Assembly back at work there would be "unfinished business".

New EC President Ursula von der Leyen is to be welcomed to Dublin on Wednesday with a State reception. In recent days, she cautioned that striking a comprehensive EU-UK trade deal before the end of the year was "impossible" without serious compromises.

Already, EU leaders are wary that we will find ourselves at a cliff-edge situation in the run up to next Christmas - but Mr Coveney does not believe that the UK will crash out.

The alternative to a comprehensive deal is that the EU and UK interact based on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, which would be a major blow to the Irish economy.

"I think it's very unlikely by the way to happen because I think the UK needs a trade deal," Mr Coveney said.

"The EU would certainly like to have a trade deal but I think the consequences to the UK of not getting a trade deal with the EU would be very severely felt in the UK, and in Ireland for that matter, but particularly in the UK.

"And I think a new prime minister with a big majority is going to want to get a deal done here, rather than be responsible for no structured trading arrangements, and having to fall back to WTO rules I think that would be seen as a massive failure for Boris Johnson," he said.

Mr Coveney warned earlier yesterday that the EU would not be rushed into a trade deal with the UK despite the House of Commons passing a law that sets the end of 2020 as a deadline for an agreement.

"I know that Prime Minister Johnson has set a very ambitious timetable to get this done. He's even put it into British law.

"The EU will not be rushed on this just because Britain passes a law," he told the BBC.

Irish Independent

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