Soft Brexit should let UK seek EU concessions, Coveney says

Tánaiste wants Britain to ‘go the Norway route and then negotiate around that’

Phase one of the Brexit negotiations has included numerous painful climbdowns for the hardline brexiteers leaving Nigel Farage to say 'the whole thing is a humiliation'.


The United Kingdom should be allowed negotiate concessions from the European Union if chooses to pursue a so-called soft Brexit, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.

Such arrangements would be unique to Britain and could go further than the relationship between the EU and Norway, which is a member of the European single market but not the EU.

However, Mr Coveney said Britain must decide by March if it wants a close relationship with the single market and customs union or if it wants to pursue a free-trade agreement similar to that between Canada and the EU, which is seen as a hard Brexit.

Mr Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs with responsibility for Brexit, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have said Ireland will be a friend to Britain in the next phase of the talks.

In an interview with The Irish Times, the Cork South-Central TD said Ireland wants Britain to “go the Norway route and then negotiate around that”. The EU, he said, would be “generous” in such a scenario.

“If they say: ‘Look we have specific issues we want to negotiate but we would like our starting point to be a customs union partnership and a very close relationship trading with the single market’, then the starting point is Norway and then let’s negotiate around the fringes of that.”

European Council meeting

The European Council meets in March, when the guidelines for Brexit negotiations will be updated to take account of what type of relationship Britain is seeking with the EU after Brexit.

“Is it heading for Canada or is it heading for Norway?” Mr Coveney asked. “They won’t be the exact models that they end up with but that will be the starting point.”

While acknowledging that “Ireland will remain within the EU side” and insisting there would be solidarity among the EU27 in the next phase of talks, Mr Coveney said differences may emerge among member states.

“It is not as straightforward because different countries have different relationships with Britain from a trading point of view.”

Some want to “get on with it and show there are consequences of leaving” and others like Ireland are closer to Britain and want a strong, seamless trading.

“It would be a lot easier to achieve that outcome if Britain signalled to remain part of a newly-designed customs union and an extension of the single market that is negotiated by Britain.”

This would reduce the chances of triggering the so-called “backstop” arrangement which would see regulatory alignment maintained between Northern Ireland and the Republic to avoid a hard border.

But the “bottom line” is that if there is “product that is moving from one customs union to another, then there has to be customs checks”, even if it is minimised by technology.

Reducing immigration is a key British goal and membership of the single market means accepting the free movement of people.

Mr Coveney would not be drawn on whether amendments to this should be considered.

“I don’t think we should be flying kites here either to suggest that something is possible when it is probably not. This is something for Britain to put through the negotiation process.”

He added there was a sense of “unreality” in Britain about the influence it had on Brexit negotiations.