Monday 18 November 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'EU allies have stuck by Ireland 'til the end - but any deal must be watertight'

No ordinary prime minister: Boris Johnson stepping out of 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photo: PA
No ordinary prime minister: Boris Johnson stepping out of 10 Downing Street yesterday. Photo: PA
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It would be understandable if Brexit had turned Tánaiste Simon Coveney into an emotional wreck. The Foreign Affairs Minister is a cautious type at the best of times but when he declared that this was neither a time for optimism nor pessimism it appeared the diagnosis was moving toward 'emotionally dead'.

The European Convention Centre in Luxembourg is devoid of any real character. There are white walls everywhere and massive panes of glass that would make Dermot Bannon blush.

The only hope for a bit of colour was that ministers from across Europe would finally declare a genuine breakthrough on Brexit.

But as BMW after Merc pulled up, it was evident that none were keen to make a splash. Ministers uniformly told reporters in a variety of languages that time was short and any deal must ensure the Irish Border situation is kept under control.

For his part, the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, briefed that "any agreement must work for everyone, the whole of the United Kingdom and the whole of the European Union".

At this stage in the process, they were all statements of the obvious but it was the uniform response from across the continent that told the real story. Their answers showed that as this three-year process came to 'le crunch', the EU was sticking by Ireland to the end.

But many ministers were also keen to remind us that the EU's single market and customs union must be protected. If a deal is to be done, it must be watertight.

Inside the meeting, Barnier convinced colleagues that the UK offer was the 'real deal' but missing key details and a legal text. Sources say EU ministers expressed support for the Frenchman and urged him to get it across the line - but not at any cost.

If it took a few more days then that would be OK and an emergency summit would be possible next week.

There's no doubt that Barnier raised expectations privately even if he was playing them down in public.

Coveney was coy: "I think this isn't the time for optimism or pessimism quite frankly. I think we need to deal with the facts as we see them."

The fact was that ministers wanted a deal but still saw a lot of problems. Some raised concerns about the numbers in Westminster. They have fallen into that trap before.

Another problem is the Benn Act which requires Boris Johnson to seek an extension if he hasn't agreed a deal by Saturday. There's no doubt that the prime minister's negotiating position was weakened by what he calls the 'Surrender Act'. It could get in the way if a deal is within reach but not achieved this week.

The law requires Johnson to send a letter asking the EU for a three-month extension even if serious talks are ongoing.

Ultimately it all came down to whether Johnson would agree to a border in the Irish Sea - something that has been the obvious but far from simple solution since this all began.

In her time, Theresa May said no British prime minister could ever accept such an alternative arrangement.

But then again, Boris Johnson is no ordinary prime minister.

Irish Independent

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