'Brexit transition period could last up to four years' - Coveney

Minister wants more clarity from UK on issue of the Border

Ministers Simon Coveney and Helen McEntee at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, yesterday

Colm Kelpie and Shona Murray in Brussels

A post-Brexit transition period could last up to four years, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney said the longer the transition period the better from an Irish perspective, but that it "can't go on forever".

"I think when we get to the point of negotiating and debating a transition arrangement, which isn't now, that will be in phase two of the negotiations, I think we'll be talking about a period of somewhere between two and four years. Let's wait and see," the minister said.

He said the EU was anxious to deal with the phase one issues first before discussing a transition period.

In her speech in Florence last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May set out her plan for a two-year post-Brexit transition period under current EU rules, but again repeated that ultimately no deal would still be better than a bad deal.

The confirmation that Downing Street wants a bridging period, which would see the UK abide by existing trading terms, will give comfort to businesses here and in Britain fearing a cliff edge exit in March 2019, but could stoke anger among Brexiteers.

In Brussels yesterday, relations between lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier and UK Brexit Secretary David Davis appeared more convivial than in recent months.

However, there was little to announce by way of substance.

"We're very slowly starting to see that there's a bit of a reality check" and an "acknowledgment of the complexities" of leaving the EU, a senior Irish official in Brussels told the Irish Independent.

The aim right now was to "preserve the common travel area and the Good Friday Agreement in all of its aspects", said the Government official.

But the EU and UK are yet to agree on the practicalities of this and "more work and clarity is needed" from the UK, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Mr Barnier noted discussions about avoiding a hard Border between the North and the Republic of Ireland had been "constructive", as both sides wished to preserve the status quo, as well as protect the Good Friday Agreement.

Yesterday's more optimistic tone was likely influenced by Mrs May's speech in Florence, which Mr Barnier said brought a "new dynamic". However, he pointed to another difficult "stumbling block" being Britain's refusal to accept the role of the European Court of Justice in ensuring the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after it leaves the union.

On the margins of the latest All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dublin yesterday, Mr Coveney said the European Union would be open to discussing a transition period. He said the "most difficult" issue was the Border.

"I think we do need to make more progress around bringing clarity around how we are going to resolve the question of maintaining a largely invisible Border on the island of Ireland and maintain the status quo," he said.

He reiterated it would make it easier if Britain agreed to remain in a customs union with the EU.

"But that is not compatible with some of the other things that Britain has been saying, in terms of its ambitions to negotiate free trade agreements all over the world. We aren't where we need to be on Border issues," Mr Coveney said. He said there was no "road map" to get us where we want to be.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the gathering that the timetable to achieving progress by next month was "challenging".

"While there has been some progress, very significant gaps remain," Mr Varadkar said.

Yesterday's Brexit civic dialogue was the third such event to take place, and, as with the other two, unionists were absent.

Mr Coveney said he wanted to hold the next event in Northern Ireland.