Wednesday 23 October 2019

Possible Brexit agreement on All-Ireland food zone would be a 'charter for smugglers' - Tánaiste

Not expecting a miracle: Leo Varadkar does not have high hopes for talks with Boris Johnson. Picture: Damien Eagers
Not expecting a miracle: Leo Varadkar does not have high hopes for talks with Boris Johnson. Picture: Damien Eagers

Cormac McQuinn and Margaret Donnelly

A Brexit agreement based on an all-island approach to agri-food would be a "smugglers' charter" without aligned cross-Border rules for other sectors Tánaiste Simon Coveney has warned.

Boris Johnson has suggested an all-Ireland food standards zone as part of alternatives to the backstop to avoid a hard Border in Ireland.

But Mr Coveney has poured cold water on the British prime minister's idea in the absence of regulatory alignment in other areas.

Speaking at a Fine Gael Brexit meeting in Cavan, Mr Coveney said the idea was "a step in the right direction" but challenges still remained for all other sectors under such an arrangement.

He put it in practical terms, explaining: "We're not going to have a situation where trucks are going to be waved through if they have food or agri-food product labelling on the side, and they're stopped if they have something else."

"That's a smuggler's charter we're talking about."

He added: "If you have to check anything, you have to check everything unless you have alignment across multiple sectors that allows for seamless trade without the need for border inspections."

Mr Coveney added that this is why he repeatedly talks about the importance of the backstop. He said the Government "can live with" either a UK-wide or Northern Ireland-specific backstop.

But he stressed that the Irish Government had been "crystal clear" that it would not sign up to putting border infrastructure in place, adding that checks away from the Border would still present "a fundamental disruption to trade."

Mr Coveney said the message to the British government was "we want a deal" and Ireland was willing to show flexibility but if the UK wanted to remove the backstop it was up to them to put forward an alternative proposal that can do the same job.

Mr Johnson has suggested there could be regulatory alignment in Ireland for sectors other than agri-food but the UK must have "democratic control" over such a regime.

His government has sent proposals to Brussels aimed at ending the impasse over the backstop.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last night said he had not seen the documents but looked forward to studying them. He is open to ideas from the UK government on viable alternatives to the backstop but warned: "We've yet to see anything that would give us justification to reopen the negotiations."

Mr Varadkar was speaking at the opening of the resurfaced runway at Knock Airport.

A priest presented him with holy water to take with him to an expected meeting with Mr Johnson on the sidelines of a UN summit in New York next week.

Asked whether he expected a miracle during the talks, the Taoiseach replied: "I do believe in miracles but I'm not sure we'll have one when it comes to Brexit."

He added: "I know both he [Mr Johnson] and I are committed to coming to an agreement if we can."

Earlier, Mr Coveney told BBC radio there is still a "wide gap" between the UK and EU on a Brexit deal. His scepticism hit sterling yesterday, helping stall a recovery for the pound.

The sterling pound pulled back from a two-month high and fell yesterday.

A report in the 'Financial Times' that Mr Johnson had told colleagues he did not expect to be able to reach a full "legally operable" deal covering the Border at a meeting of EU leaders also weighed on sterling.

Irish Independent

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