Better to have Brexit ‘crisis’ sooner rather than later, says Coveney

Taoiseach to meet Theresa May for first time in two months, ahead of crucial EU summit

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade  Simon Coveney:  any disagreement towards the end of this year over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would leave little time before Brexit formally took effect next March. Photograph: Tom Honan

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney: any disagreement towards the end of this year over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would leave little time before Brexit formally took effect next March. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

It will be better to have a “crisis” in the Brexit talks next month rather than later this year, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has told a meeting of Fine Gael TDs and Senators.

Mr Coveney told the weekly meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party that any disagreement towards the end of this year over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would leave little time before Brexit formally took effect next March.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs said it would be better to have any “crisis” in the coming weeks, and leave time for any damage to be repaired, rather than in November or December. The UK and EU are due to agree a Withdrawal Agreement – including the Irish “backstop” – by October.

His comments come ahead of a meeting between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and UK prime minister Theresa May on Thursday. The pair will discuss Brexit for the first time in almost two months as pressure builds ahead of a crucial EU summit next month.

Mr Varadkar and Ms May will hold a bilateral meeting on the fringes of a European Union western Balkans summit in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The encounter comes as Ms May struggles to unite her Cabinet behind a solid proposition on the future relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit.

Pressure

There is increasing pressure for Ms May to make a firm proposal by the next European Council meeting in June, with the Government also insisting that substantial progress must be made on the backstop.

The backstop – which would ensure no divergence in customs and trade rules between the Republic and Northern Ireland without agreed solutions on how to avoid a hard border – was agreed in principle in December, although the UK has rejected the EU’s legal interpretation of it.

Speaking on Wednesday night, Mr Varadkar said the Government had yet to see “any firm proposals coming out of London”. He said Ireland was “absolutely open to considering an alternative text to the backstop if the British put that forward”.

“We are very open to the idea of dealing with the Irish Border question through the new relationship between the UK and EU. Until we see some firm proposals in writing on the table that we can actually have a negotiation about, we have to hold very solidly to our position, which is that we require that the backstop preventing a hard border in Ireland be part of the withdrawal agreement.”

The Government sought to downplay suggestions that it could agree to a proposal from Ms May that would see the UK remain aligned to the customs union for a number of years, while it would still work on technological solutions that would prevent a hard border.

Government sources said that while any moves that would mean the UK remaining closely aligned to the EU after Brexit were welcome, this could not be done on a time-limited basis.

Future discussions

Mr Varadkar has already said that one of the proposals being discussed within the British government – Ms May’s preferred “customs partnership” – could offer the basis for future discussions, but he has ridiculed another, called “maximum facilitation”, or “max fac”.

The customs partnership would see British officials collect tariffs on behalf of the EU for any goods coming to the UK that were subsequently destined for an EU member state. “Max fac” is based on technological solutions.

Government sources said they had already moved towards the position that had been rejected by the EU, the customs partnership.

Lisa Chambers, Fianna Fáil’s Brexit spokeswoman, said a delay over a number of years on confirming the UK’s future relationship would be unacceptable.

“Who does it suit? It doesn’t suit us. The [June council meeting] deadline is there to put pressure on the UK to get off the fence, make a decision and for Theresa May to show some leadership on this issue.

“What happens when the delay period is over? It suits the British government to kick this can down the road.”