Tánaiste rejected suggestion of bilateral deal with UK
Michel Barnier has ‘done an incredible job over the last three years’, Coveney says
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said ‘everybody is trying to find a way forward that works for both sides but the negotiations take place in Brussels’. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Mr Coveney was speaking in Cork after comments by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the ploughing championship.
Mr Varadkar said on Thursday he would meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the UN General Assembly in New York next week to discuss Brexit. He also said “there is now a real willingness to find a deal”.
Asked whether the comments might create an impression Ireland was trying to do a bi-lateral deal with the UK, Mr Coveney insisted Ireland was happy for the EU to negotiate on Brexit.
“Let’s be crystal clear, we do not have bi-lateral negotiations with the UK – that does not mean we do not have conversations with them – of course we do, we’re close neighbours, we know each other well,” he said.
“Everybody is trying to find a way forward that works for both sides but the negotiations take place in Brussels and are led on our side by Michel Barnier and his task force – he’s done an incredible job over the last three years.”
He said the EU position has also been crystal clear, consistent and “respectful of the British decision to leave”.
“That is the way it will stay and we will continue to work as part of the EU team through Michel Barnier in his negotiations.”
Mr Coveney said Ireland would do everything it can to try to avoid a no-deal Brexit which would be “a lose/lose” for all sides. But he stressed again that the British government has to come up with credible alternatives if it wants a deal.
He said people need to be “honest and clear” and there has to be “a dose of realism” about proceedings.
All the talk about “compromise and mood music” did not address the fact that there is a still a gap between both sides, he said.
“Let’s not pretend we are solving a problem through the impression of effort and dialogue and lots of meetings when actually the proposals coming from the UK side don’t match the needs coming from the EU side – yet,” he said.
“Maybe that gap can be closed and that was what President Juncker was referring to yesterday and it’s what the Taoiseach was talking about in terms of his hopes, but really it’s the British side that needs to move to get us there.”
Asked if he had any concerns about British media suggestions Mr Juncker was showing signs of movement when he said he had “no emotional attachment “to the backstop, Mr Coveney said he had every confidence in the EU team.
“President Juncker has said very clearly and we agree with him – if there are alternatives to the backstop that do the same job, then that’s fine – we aren’t obsessed about the name that is the backstop in a deal.”
Mr Coveney stressed the EU was insistent that the guarantees which the previous British government gave both verbally and in writing that Brexit would not undermine the Good Friday agreement was honoured.
He pointed out that under the backstop guaranteed there would not be a need for border infrastructure and related checks and control that would undermine the all-island economy which has helped re-enforce the peace process.
“We know the backstop does that and if the British side wants to remove the backstop, they have to come forward with proposals that do the same job and they haven’t been able to do that and that is the gap that has to be closed.”
Speaking in Cork where he announced a 100 job expansion at Irish owned construction firm MMD Construction, Mr Coveney was reluctant to comment on calls by UK Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay on both sides to “take risks”.
“Really he (Mr Barclay) has to defend his own comment – Ireland’s position is clear – we want to be fair in terms of trying to get a deal but I think we also have to ensure the onus and the responsibility is focused on where it needs to be.
“And that is on London because it is London that is seeking the change that is creating a whole new series of problems to solve so the onus has to be on London to actually solve those with credible proposals.”
He siad it did not matter what the solution was called “ as long as it is consistent with the withdrawal agreement and Ireland gets the guarantees we are not going to face the prospect of border infrastructure in the future”.