Detailed backstop proposals urgently needed, Varadkar tells May

Brexit is a ‘lose, lose, lose’ damage limitation exercise, Simon Coveney says

Speaking at an EU leaders summit in Salzburg, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that the Irish Government is preparing for the possibility that the EU and UK fail to agree a Brexit deal. Video: EU Commission

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The UK needs to put detailed proposals on the backstop on the negotiating table urgently, the Taoiseach told the British prime minister today.

Time was short, Mr Varadkar is reported to have warned, insisting they need to get to discuss legal text.

Meeting this morning on the fringes of the Salzburg European Summit Mr Varadkar told Mrs May that although the UK and the EU’s task force have both presented some proposals at this stage, the British proposals are only an outline.

Irish and EU negotiators have yet to see specific details from the British side and there is a need to get into detailed discussions urgently. The Taoiseach told Ms May his objective remains the same: to achieve a legally operable and robust backstop within the Withdrawal Agreement, that ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland.

Ms May is understood to have expressed doubts about whether it will be possible to conclude the discussions by the October summit but said she was keen to bring negotiations to a conclusion as soon as possible.

The EU leaders are expected this afternoon to agree to a new November Brexit summit but to emphasise that October remains the target for resolving most of the issues around the Withdrawal Agreement, what chief negotiator Mr Michel Barnier has called the “moment of truth”.

Irish sources said the meeting had been “useful”. In the discussion on Northern Ireland Mr Varadkar emphasised the need to get talks underway between the parties.

Lose Lose Lose

Meanwhile Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said Brexit is a “damage limitation exercise” for everyone involved and a “lose, lose, lose” situation.

He also suggested on Thursday Britain’s standing in the world would be diminished because of the loss of solidarity and support from EU members.

“For the EU we will undoubtedly be weakened without the British economy and the British political system advocating for globalisation, providing a bulwark against protectionism, and making sure the single market works fairly for everybody,” he told the PwC/Irish Times tax summit in Dublin this morning.

“Britain has been the champion of all these things and the EU without Britain, in my view, is a weaker place,” he said.

“From an Irish perspective, it’s a lose too,” Mr Coveney said, noting the considerable amount of contingency planning for different eventualities that was being put in place.

Flexible

Later Mr Coveney said the Government was willing to be flexible on the “backstop” - which has ground down EU-UK negotiations on a Brexit treaty - as long as it meets commitments given by London.

Answering questions at the media announcement of public information event to get businesses ready for Brexit, the Tánaiste called for an “intensification” in negotiations between the EU and the UK around a legal text on the so-called backstop guarantee to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Describing talks as being at “the business end of negotiations,” Mr Coveney said it was always going to be difficult to conclude talks but said the decision of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier to rewrite its proposed text on the backstop was an attempt to address the UK’s concerns.

Despite agreeing in last December’s political agreement to include the backstop in the Brexit treaty, the UK has rejected the EU’s proposed text because it would keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union and parts of the single market and create a border between the North and the rest of the UK.

An intensification of negotiations was required, instead of “political commentary and political lobbying,” said Mr Coveney, “so we can get into the nuts and bolts of trying to resolve the UK’s problems here.”

The Tánaiste rejected a suggestion, as reported by news wire Bloomberg this week, that some EU members may press Ireland to drop its opposition to corporate tax reforms in return for the bloc backing the Government on Brexit. This was “not some kind of quid pro quo,” he said.

“To link the two is simply not accurate,” he said.

He remarked that there were “enough challenges with Brexit without creating new ones that aren’t there.”

“It is far too serious and too significant an issue its own right for that kind of conversation to be taking place,” he told reporters.

Public information

Mr Coveney was speaking at the Government’s announcement of a series public information meetings, which he called “Brexpos”, to be held in Cork, Galway, Monaghan and Dublin next month as part of a revamped Brexit response plan called “Getting Ireland Brexit Ready.”

The Government’s preparations for a potential no-deal Brexit “should not be interpreted as a reflection of the state of play in the negotiations or in any way prejudge the outcome,” he said.

“We have got to move ahead with preparations to ensure that we have an appropriate response to various different scenarios that may unfold,” he said.

The plan includes initiatives already announced by the Government, including a €300 million Brexit Loan Scheme that provides financing of between €25,000 and €1.5 million to businesses affected by Brexit.

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys did not answer a question about how much had been drawn down under the scheme, launched at the end of March.

She said that 151 applications for loans had been made and that of those 132 were eligible, of which 10 had been sanctioned. She would have more up to date figures by the end of September, she said.

Bertie Ahern

Clarity about the border issue must be agreed before any further discussions on Brexit go ahead maintains former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Anything else “will be a disaster” and he issue “needs to be tied down” he told RTE’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.

Mr Ahern said Ms May will have to make concessions, but she would not admit that before the forthcoming Tory conference. “We might have to make some concessions. Every week that goes by weakens our position. The British have successfully dragged it out.

“She’s done one hell of a job of dragging it out.”

He also said that “the DUP isn’t as stringent as people say. They are realistic people. They know it has to be a frictionless border. They know there has to be give and take.” The sensible thing for the UK to do is to stay within the Customs Union, he added.

An agreement needs to be tied down for a frictionless, open border, with freedom to trade between north and south with no regulations. There are still five weeks to reach an agreement, said Mr Ahern.

But he warned that the nearer the deadline approaches the greater the prospect of compromise. If the British government wants the same terms for the rest of the UK as have been proposed for Northern Ireland then why do they want to leave the Customs Union, he asked. Ms May is playing a short-term game, he added.

It is important for the EU coalition to maintain its support for Ireland. No future discussions should be allowed go ahead until there is “absolute clarity” about what will happen on January 1st 2021. “If this issue is allowed to be pushed into the future relations discussion it will be a disaster,” he warned.

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