Saturday 19 October 2019

Tánaiste dismisses claim some in Europe want Brexit border issue postponed

Mr Coveney was in Luxembourg today where he met with the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Mr Coveney was in Luxembourg today where he met with the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

TÁNAISTE Simon Coveney has dismissed a claim that some in Europe want a deal on avoiding a post-Brexit hard border postponed.

It came after Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin raised fears over what he said were suggestions on the Continent that reaching an agreement on the issue should be deferred.

He said he had heard this from colleagues in the Party of European Socialists.

Mr Howlin's concerns come after the failure over the weekend by EU and UK negotiators to reach a deal on the so-called backstop to avoid a hard border even if Britain crashes out of Europe without an overall withdrawal agreement.

Mr Coveney was in Luxembourg today where he met with the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

He insisted: "There is no sense from any of the conversations that I have had with other EU foreign ministers that anybody is questioning or undermining the EU position on the Irish backstop, quite the opposite in fact."

Mr Coveney said that Mr Barnier told him he continues to have the "absolute support" of the 27 member States on the approach to the issue of the border.

He added: "the solidarity is as strong as it’s ever been so I’m not sure what sources Brendan Howlin is actually getting information from but I suspect they are not as credible as the assurances that we’re getting from the chief negotiator today."

Despite a current impasse in talks Mr Coveney said the government is confident that a deal for a "managed, sensible Brexit" can still be done but added: "clearly there is work still to do".

He said it's unlikely there will be a lot agreed at the European Council meeting tomorrow night.

He expects Mr Barnier to brief EU leaders and British Prime Minister Theresa May to update them on her government's perspective.

Mr Coveney said he expects what will be needed is an acceptance that more time is required for the negotiating teams to re-engage.

His remarks follow serious concerns being raised by opposition politicians here on the lack of a deal on the border this week.

The EU has shot down a British proposal to put a time limit on the backstop.

Mr Howlin said he had feared the border would become the "fulcrum issue" after the target date for reaching an agreement was previously put back from June to October.

He said he had been speaking to colleagues in Europe and - while solidarity remains - that "for the first time that there is actually suggestions being made that the Irish backstop issue should be postponed."

He said: "I think that is very dangerous for us and it’s something that we have to resist."

Mr Howlin said he doesn't know where suggestions that a postponement could happen is coming from but it's the first time he's been told about such a prospect from social democratic colleagues on the Continent.

Fianna Fáil Brexit spokesperson Lisa Chambers  said it's "quite worrying that we’re at this late stage now where the Irish issue remains the unresolved issue.

“We still are no closer to having a legally binding backstop that will ensure no hard border on this island.”

She noted European Council president Donald Tusk’s comments that a no-deal Brexit was “more likely than ever before” but said there is still goodwill left on both sides and they want a deal.

“But I think it’s quite clear to everybody involved that time is fast running out,” she added.

Asked about Mr Howlin’s remarks on suggestions there are some in Europe who want to postpone the border issue, she said there are "lots of rumours flying around".

She said it's "no secret" that the UK want it resolved through a future trading arrangement.

But she said the position of the Fine Gael-led minority government, of Fianna Fáil, and the EU's negotiating team lead by Michel Barnier is that the border in Ireland has to be part of the withdrawal treaty,

Ms Chambers added: "Our position on it remains unchanged.

"It is... the view of the Fianna Fáil party that if we allow that issue to get kicked down the road, if it’s not resolved now we could find ourselves in a very lonely situation if that’s left to a further point."

She said: “In fairness to the EU negotiating team, they really haven’t moved from their position that the four freedoms [of the EU Single Market] are indivisible and that the Irish border issue must be resolved in the withdrawal treaty.” 

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