Boris kicks for touch on Border as Coveney wants detail

Foreign secretary brings rhetorical flourishes of Brexiteers to Dublin on first official visit

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney meeting  Boris Johnson at Iveagh House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney meeting Boris Johnson at Iveagh House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Irish Border: when to negotiate its future post-Brexit, now or later? The European Union and the United Kingdom have their main sticking point – the size of the divorce bill. This is ours.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney applied plenty of pressure at his press conference with British foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

Sort out the future of the Border now before London and Brussels get lost in the weeds of negotiations around Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU and the world, he argued.

Johnson, coming to Dublin for the first time as the UK’s top diplomat, peddled his government’s line: the best time to deal with the Border on the island of Ireland is with the rest of Britain’s borders with the EU. This will come when it is time to negotiate Britain’s future relationship with the EU single market and customs union.

Opinion was divided between them on when “the meat of negotiations” (Johnson’s phrase) is: during Britain’s divorce from the EU, or during negotiations around post-divorce relations. To Coveney, there are two cuts of meat – now over the Border and later during the negotiations on trade. Johnson’s sees only one.

Stray into discussion

Holding that position, the Conservative minister was never going to stray into any discussion around the EU’s paper last week indicating that Northern Ireland would effectively have to remain in the customs union and the single market in order to avoid a hard Border on the island after Britain quits the EU in March 2019.

Asked to “humour” reporters for a moment about what the British envisaged with a frictionless border, Johnson kicked for touch. It was “intellectually, intimately bound up” with the UK’s relationship with the single market and the customs union, he said. In other words, it was a matter for later in the negotiations.

The clock is ticking down to the summit of EU leaders in the middle of next month when Brussels wants clear progress on negotiations around Brexit and that includes, as far as the Government and the EU are concerned, clarity and assurances around what will happen to the Border in a post-Brexit world.

Stark differences

The amount of ground that has to be made up between the sides was clear to see as Coveney and Johnson stood in front of their respective flags with a European flag between them at their early-morning press conference at Iveagh House. The differences between the pair were stark.

On one point they agree. Johnson reiterated the British view that nobody wants to see the return of a hard Border. Coveney said it was “great to hear that” and that the British government had been “consistent on this issue”, indicating that all this had been said before and it was now a question of “how do we get there”.

The differences are not just over the substance of the negotiations; they were in the tone too. Johnson brought more of the rhetorical flourishes of the Brexiteers to Dublin; Coveney pushed for detail.

One side appears to be trying to buy time or at least playing the Border issue as a tactic for another play; the other is frustrated. In that context, a shift in position before next month’s summit appears some way off.