Monday 16 December 2019

Government to lose 'privileged access' to Brexit deal talks

Simon Coveney brought the confidential memo to Cabinet. Picture: Collins
Simon Coveney brought the confidential memo to Cabinet. Picture: Collins
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

The Irish Government will lose its 'privileged access' to Brexit negotiations once talks on a future trade deal between the EU and the UK begin, Cabinet ministers have been secretly warned.

A confidential memo brought to Cabinet last month also warned that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's hopes of wrapping up an EU-UK trade deal by the end of next year are "unrealistic".

Ireland has been at the forefront of the Brexit negotiations for the past three years, owing to the fact it is the only EU country which shares a significant land border with the UK.

EU leaders repeatedly insisted a withdrawal deal was not possible without the approval of the Government in Dublin, which has sought to avoid a hard Border on the island.

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However, this privileged access to the top EU negotiators, including Michel Barnier, that has been a key feature of the Brexit process, will be more restricted once trade talks begin.

Ministers were warned Ireland "will no longer have the same degree of privileged access into the negotiation process".

The Border between the Republic and the North had been one of the key sticking points in the long-running negotiations.

It was only resolved after a summit between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Johnson near Liverpool in October.

The EU and the UK subsequently agreed a revised withdrawal deal, which Mr Johnson hopes to ratify in parliament after the UK general election on Thursday week.

The Tory leader is widely expected to be returned with an overall majority, with the UK due to leave the EU on January 31.

The confidential memo was presented to Cabinet ministers by Tánaiste Simon Coveney on November 5 and provided a broad update on the Brexit state of play with the election in the UK under way.

However, in a section on Ireland's position on the future EU-UK relationship negotiations, the document warned the Government will have to identify and advance its 'offensive' and 'defensive' interests.

"This is particularly the case as, in this phase, Ireland will no longer have the same degree of privileged access into the negotiation process which was linked to the priority accorded to Irish issues in the withdrawal agreement phase," it said.

It went on to say that engaging with domestic stakeholders, allies in the EU and building strong relations with Mr Barnier's Brexit taskforce and the European Commission, whose new president Ursula von der Leyen took office at the weekend, will be "critical".

Work will also be needed on finalising "a range of sensitive issues arising" out of the implementation of the Border protocol in the withdrawal deal.

Mr Johnson has said a comprehensive trade deal can be hammered out by the December 2020 deadline, despite widespread scepticism within EU circles.

The memo said this timeline is "very demanding", before adding "and many would say unrealistic" given the UK's current position on regulatory divergence from the EU.

Mr Coveney has already publicly suggested trade talks could take at least four years.

Ministers were also told in the document that December 31, 2020, is potentially a critical date if an agreement on the future EU-UK relationship is not in place and the UK has not requested an extension to trade talks by July next year.

Irish Independent

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