Monday 15 July 2019

John Downing: 'Remarks aren't surprising and can be linked to wider tensions'


Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz. Photo: Getty Images
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz. Photo: Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

There has been surprise at the level of rock-solid support given to Ireland in the entire Brexit process up to now. So these comments by Poland's foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, about limiting the Border backstop to "say five years" are definitely unwelcome.

But they are not entirely surprising - nor are they anything like the beginning of the end for Irish solidarity from the remaining 26 other member states on Brexit.

Poland has a tricky relationship with Brussels, and other key EU capitals, over controversial judicial reforms that, according to the European Commission and EU courts, breach the rule of law. Last year, Mr Czaputowicz's colleague Konrad Szymanski, the Europe minister, upset Ireland and other EU governments by more stridently questioning the sense of insisting on the backstop.

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"Are we really going to wreck the deal over the backstop? Ireland is a small country. It is not worth it," the Polish EU minister asked.

There was speculation last autumn, as the sluggish Brexit negotiations finally moved into gear in Brussels, that Poland might break ranks and to some degree side with the UK.

Ireland has included Poland in its intensive rounds of EU member government lobbying, which have gone on for almost three years now. Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has met both these ministers and other key people on many occasions.

The Polish foreign minister visited Ireland late last year and also went to see the Border. At the time, Mr Czaputowicz spoke about the large number of his country's citizens living in both Irish jurisdictions and hoped their lives would not be affected by the issue.

His comments yesterday first came in an interview with the Polish conservative newspaper 'Rzeczpospolita'. He later discussed them with Mr Coveney and the UK foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, in the margins of a meeting in Brussels.

"If Ireland appealed to the EU to change the agreement on the backstop in the agreement with the British so that it would apply temporarily, let's say five years, the matter would be solved," he had said.

But he did not sound like he was betting the farm on this one either. "So that's an idea to be discussed within the European Union. I don't know if it's feasible - if Ireland is ready to put forward such a proposal, but I have an impression that it might unblock the negotiations," he said.

Mr Coveney again said the idea just would not work. "He mentioned that issue in Dublin in December when he visited," the Tánaiste told reporters. "Putting a time limit on an insurance mechanism, which is what the backstop is, effectively means that it's not a backstop at all. I don't think that reflects EU thinking in relation to the withdrawal agreement."

Over time it is likely to be seen as "awkward - not fatal" to Ireland's hopes. But it is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.

Irish Independent

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