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'I am conscious that we are writing history here' - Simon Coveney on a big week ahead for Ireland, the UK, and Brexit

Not all customs checks will happen immediately if it is a no-deal scenario, writes Hugh O'Connell in Brussels

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Ready or not: Tánaiste Simon Coveney announcing Government plans to ramp up preparations for a no-deal Brexit last week. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Ready or not: Tánaiste Simon Coveney announcing Government plans to ramp up preparations for a no-deal Brexit last week. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Ready or not: Tánaiste Simon Coveney announcing Government plans to ramp up preparations for a no-deal Brexit last week. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Inside an austere and gloomy meeting room on the fourth floor of Ireland's EU embassy in Brussels Simon Coveney, the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, sat down last Friday afternoon after one of his most gruelling weeks in some time.

It began last Sunday in New York at the UN General Assembly where he took part in 25 bilateral meetings in three days as well as talks on the Middle East peace process.

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Tanaiste Simon Coveney outside the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, last Friday. Photo: Monasse Th / Andia.fr

Tanaiste Simon Coveney outside the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, last Friday. Photo: Monasse Th / Andia.fr

Tanaiste Simon Coveney outside the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, last Friday. Photo: Monasse Th / Andia.fr

He flew back to Ireland overnight on Wednesday in order to chair a Thursday afternoon cabinet meeting in Dublin. That night he was in Cork for a constituency event and to see his family - wife Ruth and their three young daughters - briefly, before getting up at 5am to fly out to Brussels early on Friday morning for a meeting with the EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

His advisers openly admit they are wrecked, while his family are "very positive" but "don't like it very much". Still, the eternally optimistic Tanaiste told Independent.ie: "I'm kind of energised by this… I am conscious that we are writing history here. How these debates turn out - whether or not we got a deal or not - in many ways will shape the relationship between Ireland and Britain and the relationship between the UK and the EU for a lifetime to come and that's a big responsibility."

How well does he shoulder this responsibility?

Some in the DUP privately dismiss Coveney as "arrogant" and "tone-deaf" to their concerns.

In EU land, there is admiration for his "cool, calm and very statesmanlike authority", as one European Commission source close to the Brexit process put it. But then, as the same source admitted, "the Tories make everyone on the other side look good".

Coveney's visit to the Belgian capital late last week had an air of pointlessness about it. The UK has not tabled any serious proposals to break the Brexit impasse, so what was there to discuss?

An Irish source said afterwards that Barnier, the suave and sophisticated Frenchman, was "extremely relaxed" in the meeting on the fifth floor of the Berlaymont, the Commission's vast Brussels headquarters, and that he discussed strategy with Coveney over a cod lunch.

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Simon Coveney with Hugh O’Connell in Brussels. Photo: Monasse Th / Andia.fr

Simon Coveney with Hugh O’Connell in Brussels. Photo: Monasse Th / Andia.fr

Simon Coveney with Hugh O’Connell in Brussels. Photo: Monasse Th / Andia.fr

Following the meeting, the Tanaiste emerged into the Brussels rain to tell reporters that "time is running out" and that the EU stands ready 24/7 to discuss new proposals with the UK. He gave little else away on the 'strategy' discussed with Barnier.

But the shape of the EU and Ireland's approach is becoming clear this weekend as Coveney heaps pressure on Boris Johnson.

The Tanaiste told this newspaper: "I don't believe anything that the British side has proposed since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister is credible as an attempt to try to get a deal done."

With 32 days to go, the Irish Government is now effectively saying Johnson has until the end of this week to table "credible" alternative proposals to the backstop - the provision of the Brexit withdrawal deal which guarantees no hard border on the island of Ireland - or else comply with the law and seek an extension to the Brexit deadline of October 31.

"I think the Taoiseach was convinced and I am too that the British government wants to get a deal, but the real test of that, to be honest, is next week," Coveney said.

"I mean I think that after the Conservative Party conference [which ends this Wednesday] if there is not a serious effort on the British side to put forward a proposal that's credible, then I think we're into a very difficult space."

He added: "If the British government is serious about getting a deal done you would expect that a credible proposal will come next week."

The warning is unambiguous and although Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last Friday that he was "not particularly optimistic" about new proposals being brought forward Coveney said that UK law is clear about what happens next.

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The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Photo: PA

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Photo: PA

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Photo: PA

"The legislation in the UK is clear that if there isn't a deal, then on October 19 the British Prime Minister has to apply for an extension," he said. "I mean that's a matter for him. I think it would be an extraordinary thing if a British Prime Minister didn't act in compliance with the law."

Johnson is prevaricating on whether he would comply with legislation passed in the House of Commons earlier this month that requires him to seek to an extension.

The Tory leader, who wants to leave "do or die" on October 31, calls the law passed by opposition MPs and Tory rebels the 'Surrender Act'. Such language has been much criticised in Westminster this week. During one of the most heated and ill-tempered House of Commons debates in modern times, Johnson dismissed concerns about the personal safety of MPs as "humbug". Commons Speaker John Bercow later described the culture of the debate as "toxic".

Coveney said he was "taken aback" by Johnson's remarks and that he has never seen British politics as divided as it is now.

"It's very worrying, and I think the Speaker's remarks were correct," he said.

Boris Johnson's controversial remarks came off the back of a devastating defeat in the UK Supreme Court that forced the recall of parliament. With no governing majority in the Commons, Johnson appears to many to be losing much of his political capital.

So could the Irish government work with an alternative Prime Minister - such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, or a compromise candidate like Tory grandee Ken Clarke - should one emerge from Westminster political crisis in the coming weeks?

"Oh, yeah, no, I mean, we've had four prime ministers since Brexit," Coveney said before swiftly correcting himself. There have, in fact, been only three Prime Ministers since Brexit - but then, it's easy to lose count.

"There's an obligation on me to work with the British prime minister, whether that's Boris Johnson, whether it's Theresa May. Our focus is not personality-based, it's outcome-based. That's always been the case."

Coveney said Johnson has been told what he needs to do to achieve a deal, and that it is now up to him to bring forward proposals. But there has been a "fundamental shift" from Johnson's predecessor Theresa May's Brexit position, he said.

"Boris Johnson's approach is very different.

"He wants divergence from the European regulatory model, he wants to remove the backstop from the withdrawal agreement and by doing both of those things, or saying both those things, what he's doing is he's removing a really important guarantee and solution - albeit a temporary one - in the backstop to reassure people that on the island of Ireland, that they won't face border infrastructure as a consequence of Brexit, and at the same time, he's making the likelihood of that problem significantly worse."

The Tanaiste said the EU would not negotiate at the European Council summit on October 17 and 18 and that the technical and legal elements of a deal would need to be hammered out before then.

Even if, against the odds, such a deal can be done, Coveney believes negotiating a free-trade agreement with the EU would take the UK at least four years. "There's an automatic two years initially; the UK has the option to extend that to four years if they want. I think we need all of that time, too."

In effect, Coveney believes it could be late 2023 before the UK actually leaves the EU. Such comments at this sensitive stage in the Brexit process will not go down well with hardline Brexiteer MPs who believe the UK should have already left.

All of which leaves us perilously close to a no-deal scenario in less than five weeks, which will force the Irish Government to introduce new tariffs on goods and customs checks to comply with EU single market rules, while at the same time avoiding infrastructure and instability along the Northern Ireland border.

Secret talks between the Government and the European Commission about how to do this are ongoing and still have a "few weeks left", Coveney said.

However, for the first time, he has confirmed that not all customs and regulatory checks will come into force immediately after a no-deal Brexit on October 31; instead, there will be a timeline for the rollout of such measures that will be agreed with the Commission.

"We will have to agree both what we need to do in terms of checks, how they operate and where they operate, and a timeline for the implementation because, for pragmatic reasons, all of this is not going to be done by the end of October.

"That was never the case, and so there will be the actual reality of what we need to do and a timeline agreed with the European Commission. Both of those issues are under discussion at the moment.

"Some of the [single market] integrity issues will need to be dealt with, I think, immediately after a no-deal happens, should that happen. I think other elements, we would get some time and space to do it over time.

"There are a series of elements to the responsibility of maintaining Ireland's place in the single market, from customs to SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) to regulatory checks. So we need solutions for all of those things. Some of them are easier done than others."

Coveney was sketchy on whether checks will take place near the Border - despite the Taoiseach saying in New York again this week there would be "some near the Border".

Coveney said: "We've said that they won't be on the Border. But I'm not in a position to outline to people where they will be until we have an agreement with the commission as to how that's going to work."

He failed to acknowledge the clear discrepancy between his position and Varadkar's. But such evasion is typical of the conflict-averse Tanaiste who, even amid the Brexit turmoil, adopts a permanently sunny disposition.

"I hope in the next few weeks we can surprise people and get a deal done that can allow us all move forward," he insisted, before swiftly departing to catch a flight home and some rare respite.

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British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Photo: AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali

British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Photo: AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali

AP

British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Photo: AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali

Sunday Independent