Coveney and Barnier to discuss Brexit hard border

Brussels meeting, the first one-on-one talks between the two since December, will focus on final text

Tánaiste Simon Coveney: Monday’s meeting comes ahead of a major speech by British prime minister Theresa May on Friday when she will set out the “way forward” for Brexit. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tánaiste Simon Coveney will meet European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Monday amid high expectations last December’s agreement on the Border will be robustly supported in a new EU legal text.

Mr Coveney will travel to Brussels on Monday for two days of meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and the General Affairs Council.

Ahead of his meeting with Mr Barnier, Mr Coveney’s spokesman said the Tánaiste was “fully satisfied” Ireland’s concerns over maintaining an open border would be fully reflected in the legal text.

In a significant week for Brexit negotiations, the EU will publish its draft legal text on Wednesday translating December's phase one Brexit agreement into one giving it operational effect.

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‘Way forward’

That comes ahead of a major speech by British prime minister Theresa May on Friday when she will set out the “way forward” for Britain’s exit from the EU.

There have been concerns that the British government – already deeply divided over the nature and extent of its departure from the union – might want to backslide from some of the commitments it gave in the report at the end of phase one in December on a financial settlement, citizens rights and the Border issue on the island of Ireland.

Mr Coveney’s meeting with Mr Barnier, the first one-on-one meeting between the two since December, will centre on the final text.

‘Backstop’

In the December agreement, there were three options outlined. The first provided for a full and comprehensive trade agreement that would essentially leave a “dissolved” Border. The second offered solutions involving technology and detailed agreements facilitating trade and cross-Border activity that would nullify the need for a Border.

Option C, the so-called “backstop”, would only come into play if the the other two options were not possible. That gave assurances to Ireland there would be full alignment of rules on both sides of the Border, for both the customs union and single market.

It is that option C guarantee preventing a “hard border” that is expected to be included in the legal draft this week, notwithstanding opposition from Britain.

The spokesman for Mr Coveney said: “Our team has worked closely with the task force [headed by Mr Barnier] to ensure there will be no slippage following the deal agreed in December. Despite the efforts of some to distract from that, we are fully satisfied that Ireland’s concerns will be effectively addressed. All of this will be seen over the coming days.

Ambitious

“Our first preference remains to resolve these issues by the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the UK or option A. In that regard, we are also looking forward to the remarks by British prime minister Theresa May later this week. We hope the UK is ambitious in the relationship it seeks and also shows awareness of the responsibilities that come with that kind of close partnership.”

Separately, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin has called on Sinn Féin to make a “historic decision” and end its abstentionist policy in Westminster to prevent a hard Brexit.

He said that following the decision by the British Labour Party to support a customs union, there was a heavy responsibility to safeguard Irish interests.

“Mary Lou McDonald has taken over as the new leader of Sinn Féin and is faced with a difficult and historic decision. To allow this critical vote to take place without Ireland’s voice being heard would be an abdication of political responsibility.

‘Willingness to act’

“But to make this step now would be a sign of Sinn Féin’s willingness to act in the overall national interest despite a clear inconvenience to itself.

“I understand the significance of the principle of historical absenteeism not just to Sinn Féin but to all parties on this island. But I know too that previous generations of republicans have supported parliamentary action in the House of Commons when they believed it to be in the interest.”

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times