Scramble to stop Border if No Deal goes ahead
Ireland is fighting a rear-guard action to ensure there is no return to a hard Border in the event of a disorderly Brexit.
Informal “conversations” have taken place between Irish officials and the EU Commission over how to turn Northern Ireland into a special case.
Both the EU and Ireland believe the main responsibility for preventing checks on goods travelling between the Republic and the North lies with Britain.
However, behind the closed doors of this week’s EU summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted there is now a serious risk of a no-deal outcome. And she called on the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to explore “a fall-back plan” to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.
Speaking publicly, Mrs Merkel said EU leaders were “trying to avoid” a new Border on the island of Ireland.
At the end of fraught two-day summit, one EU official was quoted as saying it was the "first time leaders tried to crystallise what a no-deal means".
Tánaiste Simon Coveney last night confirmed for the first time that there had been "conversations" around how to prevent a Border if the UK crashes out on April 12.
However, he denied there had been "formal discussion or negotiation as to how it would work".
EU rules dictate that Ireland must protect the integrity of the single market after Brexit.
While temporary measures could be put in place to maintain an open Border in the short-term, the Irish Government accepts a long-term arrangement involving regulatory alignment is the only way of permanently avoiding customs checks.
While Ireland, the UK and the EU don't want to see a Border on the island of Ireland, single market rules would demand an 'external border' to protect its integrity. If the UK crashes out on April 12, single market rules will mean a Border unless some alternative mechanism can be found.
Mr Coveney said the Irish Government was "not sitting on our hands" while Britain moved towards the cliff-edge, adding that the EU understood the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
"Certainly our view is that it means we have to find a way of ensuring physical Border infrastructure doesn't re-emerge.
"I think that would be a shared endeavour across all three entities, the British and Ireland governments and the European Commission."
Speaking in Brussels at the end of the EU Council gathering, where the UK was granted a Brexit extension until at least April 12, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also said there was a "growing acknowledgement" in the UK that Northern Ireland and the Republic need "special arrangements and the detail of those that we'll need to work through".
In comments that are likely to raise more tensions with the DUP, he added: "But if you want to know what they look like, they look like the backstop."
Ending the summit, EU Council President Donald Tusk said there was now nothing more the EU could do to help British Prime Minister Theresa May. "The fate of Brexit is in the hands of our British friends," he said.
Mrs May left the summit early in order to continue lobbying MPs to support the Withdrawal Agreement which has already been twice rejected by the House of Commons.
However, she has now hinted that she might not bring her deal back to parliament for a third time next week if there is not enough support for it to be passed.
In a letter to MPs, the embattled Conservative leader suggested such support might not be forthcoming.
"If it appears there is not sufficient support to bring the deal back next week, or the House rejects it again, we can ask for another extension before April 12 - but that will involve holding European Parliament elections," she wrote.
A cross-party group of pro-EU MPs claim they have the numbers to force a series of "indicative votes" on alternatives to Mrs May's Brexit deal. This could see MPs being asked to vote on a series of options such as a second referendum, favouring a soft Brexit that involves a close customs relationship or even revoking Article 50 altogether.