'Cliff-edge' no-deal Brexit crisis likely in autumn, says Tánaiste

Simon Coveney warns consequences of Covid-19 for EU to last for next decade

A "cliff-edge" Brexit crisis towards no deal is on the cards in the autumn, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has warned after the UK government's insistence that it will not extend the deadline on trade talks.

Mr Coveney said he would not be “raising expectations” that the UK would change its mind and “demanding it, almost as a concession from the EU is not the way forward”.

He also warned that the Covid-19 pandemic would determine what the European Union and its member states do for the next decade.

And he said that since the outbreak of the virus the Department of Foreign Affairs has provided consular assistance to more than 5,000 Irish citizens.


To date 627 have been repatriated from 126 locations in what became the “biggest repatriation effort in the history of the State”.

The Tánaiste was speaking at a video-conferencing seminar on the EU and facing the challenges of Covid-19, hosted by the International Institute of European Affairs and "attended" by 380 people.

December 31st is the deadline for the Brexit trade talks unless the UK agrees by June to extend the negotiating period.

But the British authorities have dismissed any notion of an extension despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Coveney said: “Given the added complications of Covid-19 it surely makes sense to seek a bit more time to navigate our way through these very difficult waters in the months ahead so that we can get a good outcome for the UK and EU.”

Instead he believed it likely that people would hold their position, which would result in “having a very difficult crisis in Brexit in the autumn... on a cliff-edge path of no trade deal”.

He said if there was no deal they still needed the Northern Ireland protocol in place to trade and to protect the all-island economy.

That would involve checks from Britain to Northern Ireland and some infrastructure, he said.

Belfast office

The British authorities have also opposed the establishment of an EU office in Belfast, which was originally a “non-issue” and agreed during negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol.

But the Tánaiste said some in the UK perceived this to be a compromise on sovereignty and oversight by the EU.

There were concerns that Northern Ireland would become a “mudguard” for goods going into the EU across the border.

The UK would be implementing arrangements on any checks and the whole point of the office was to “provide reassurance, not just to Ireland but to the EU in general”.

Mr Coveney added that the assumption was that it would be a relatively small office staffed by technocrats.

He told his audience that the UK wants to be fully autonomous, to break free from the EU and to re-forge its future in the world and not be a rule taker.

“That is fine from a political narrative but if there is going to be a trade deal that doesn’t involve any tariffs and potentially barrier-free access, then there is a negotiation where both sides have interests.”

The Tánaiste also acknowledged that initial EU responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as closing borders, were un-coordinated, “adding to negative perceptions of the European response”.

Part of this was because health is a national rather than EU-level competence, which he believed would not change.

But he said the EU had learned a lot of lessons and would be much more co-ordinated in the future in case of a second wave of the disease, in areas such as the provision of medical equipment.

He stressed that the EU is carrying out a series of unprecedented measures to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus crisis.

“But recovery – and economic recovery in particular – will depend on EU solidarity and decisive, swift action. Thousands of businesses and millions of jobs would be lost were it not for the financial support facilitated by the EU and ECB.”

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times