Farm Ireland

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Healy meets Barnier ahead of crucial week for Brexit

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, IFA President Joe Healy, EU Brexit Negotiating Chief Michel Barnier and Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney. Pic: Chris Donoghue/twitter
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, IFA President Joe Healy, EU Brexit Negotiating Chief Michel Barnier and Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney. Pic: Chris Donoghue/twitter

Margaret Donnelly and John Downing

Irish Farmers’ Association president Joe Healy met chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier ahead of key Brexit votes en route to the Six Nations clash between Ireland and France.

Healy bumped into Michel Barnier, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tanaiste Simon Coveney along with the French farming leader FNSEA President Christiane Lambert at yesterday’s Six Nations match against France.

Healy said he acknowledged the strong, consistent approach of Michel Barnier throughout the Brexit process and the importance of maintaining EU solidarity in the coming weeks.

“Hopefully, the outcome will remove the uncertainty that has existed and restore confidence among Irish farmers, particularly in the beef sector, given the losses they have already incurred.”

The President of the IFA and the President of the French farmers’ union FNSEA Christiane Lambert will hold a joint briefing today, ahead of crucial votes in Westminster on Brexit next week.

The French farm leader is in Ireland as the Brexit endgame on March 29 and the two farm leaders will be setting out the issues for agriculture and the importance of an outcome that doesn’t damage the agri-food sector.

The meeting comes as the UK cabinet meets this week to vote on a Withdrawal Agreement on Brexit.

Theresa May is yet again set to push Brexit to the absolute brink in two parallel confrontations, with the EU on one side, and her own rebelling Conservative Party colleagues on the other.

With just 18 days left to the Brexit deadline of March 29, the UK prime minister is still hanging on for EU concessions on the Irish Border backstop, which Brussels is resolutely refusing. 

At the same time, Mrs May has ramped up a stark warning to her own party rebels that Brexit risks “not happening at all” if they fail to back her withdrawal deal in another crucial vote due in Westminster tomorrow.

Almost two months ago, the House of Commons rejected the Withdrawal Agreement by a huge majority of 230 votes. That sent Mrs May back to renegotiate the deal she had agreed on November 25 at a special EU leaders’ summit in Brussels.

In Dublin to attend the Ireland-France Six Nations rugby international yesterday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said contacts were ongoing with UK officials.

But sources close to the process said there was no move beyond the deadlock which emerged on Friday when an EU formula was rejected out of hand by the UK government.

Many MPs at Westminster have warned another defeat tomorrow now appears “inevitable”. This raises the prospect of two more promised votes, possibly both to be held on Wednesday, one to rule out a calamitous no-deal crash-out, a second to seek an extension to the Brexit process beyond March 29.

It also raises questions of the future of the British prime minister.

Mrs May’s earlier warnings to Brexiteers on the risk of a delay ultimately derailing the Brexit process was trenchantly repeated yesterday by a key ally. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that any delay risked helping those seeking to keep Britain in the EU by improving prospects for holding another referendum.

“There is a risk and possibility that we end up losing Brexit if we get the votes wrong in the next couple of weeks,” he told the BBC. These comments were echoed earlier by Mrs May and followed weeks of EU-UK talks focused on the so-called backstop, an arrangement of crucial interest to Ireland.

This is an element of the Brexit deal intended to keep the Irish Border open. It would keep Britain in the EU’s customs union and parts of its single market unless and until another way, such as a future EU-UK post-Brexit trade deal, is found to avoid Border checks.

Many MPs fear it is a trap to keep them tied to EU rules.

But Brussels has steadfastly rejected calls for a time-limit or unilateral way out of the backstop arrangement for Britain.

Mr Barnier repeated on Friday that the bloc could offer a legally binding statement confirming the backstop was only meant to be temporary.

But this was not enough to convince Mrs May’s critics in the Commons, which rejected the deal by 432 votes to 202 in January.

Irish beef and dairy industries is facing a massive threat if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal and looks to third countries for food imports.

The Department of Agriculture has estimated the cost of potential tariffs for the sector as a whole is €1.7bn, based on Irish agri-food exports to the UK of €4.8bn in 2016.

The dairy sector estimates that for just cheddar alone, the tariff threat is about €155m, and about €400m on overall exports to the UK.

Online Editors

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