Monday 16 September 2019

Tánaiste gets tetchy as EU tour does little to unpick the Brexit deadlock

Little tangible progress: Tánaiste Simon Coveney alongside the UK's Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay in Paris this week. Photo: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Little tangible progress: Tánaiste Simon Coveney alongside the UK's Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay in Paris this week. Photo: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

With Taoiseach Leo Varadkar away this week, it was left to Tánaiste Simon Coveney to do much of the heavy lifting on Brexit as he continued his diplomatic offensive in a number of European capitals.

Mr Coveney's travel schedule was aimed at shoring up EU solidarity on Brexit - and that was not in short supply wherever he went.

EU politicians are providing so much backing to Ireland on the backstop that it's starting to go out of fashion.

Mr Coveney was in Prague on Tuesday and Paris on Wednesday, before a meeting with EU foreign ministers in Helsinki, Finland, yesterday. There he engaged with the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab - a man notorious in this country for accusing the Taoiseach of leaking to, of all papers, the Tory-backing 'Daily Telegraph', a claim dismissed by Mr Coveney's spokesman in January as "off the wall".

The Tánaiste urged Mr Raab to bring any viable alternatives to the backstop forward to Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier "as quickly as possible".

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson claimed there had been "a great deal of movement from the EU side", a comment viewed with scepticism in Brussels and elsewhere as the EU position hasn't changed an iota, albeit that the tone is more conciliatory in the hope it might help strike a deal.

"The EU position remains consistent and clear, totally unchanged," Mr Coveney's spokesman insisted.

The Tánaiste left Helsinki yesterday morning and flew back to Dublin, before heading to Belfast to meet Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith in order to get an update on the continuing political stalemate at Stormont.

He is due in Warsaw, Poland, tomorrow as part of what has been a bruising travel schedule that has probably left him sleep-deprived and missing his family. But even before he left, Mr Coveney seemed to have lost his "trademark patience", as one minister described it. The Tánaiste, the Cabinet colleague observed, had become "tetchy", with a noticeably testy interview with Miriam O'Callaghan on RTÉ Radio earlier in the month raising eyebrows.

Mr Coveney's frustration with the UK government is clear. In Paris this week, he described Mr Johnson's pledge not to erect infrastructure along the Border as being "the kind of conversation I would have with my six-year-old child, that 'I won't do it if you won't do it', despite the fact the rules of trade require it".

In fact, the Tánaiste's exasperation with the UK was evident in most media engagements. In Prague, he told reporters Mr Johnson was trying to "rewrite the rules" when it came to the backstop, and described all of the proposed alternatives as "not even close" to acceptable.

This week has effectively involved Mr Coveney travelling around Europe saying the exact same thing he's been saying for weeks, while attempting to shore up already unwavering solidarity from EU countries.

Was it the best use of his time? We are less than nine weeks from the October 31 deadline and while engagement with counterparts across the EU and the UK is important, it does not appear to be yielding any tangible progress when it comes to breaking the deadlock. Meanwhile, we lack detail about what a no-deal Brexit will mean at the Border with the Government only committing to providing more detail in the coming weeks.

Irish Independent

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