Government rejects suggestion May was ostracised at Salzburg
Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee insists EU merely restated Brexit position
Britain’s prime minister Theresa May arrives for a photograph during last week’s European Union leaders informal summit in Salzburg, Austria. File Photograph: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
The Government has rejected suggestions UK prime minister Theresa May was ostracised at last week’s EU summit in Salzburg, after which she claimed she was treated with a lack of respect by EU leaders.
Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee was speaking at Wednesday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, during which she discussed the Salzburg summit and the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
A number of legislators expressed concern about the “isolating” of the UK prime minister at Salzburg, which led the British media to claim she had been “humiliated”.
Ms May later delivered a defiant speech and demanded “respect” for the UK.
Asked by legislators about the “vital” importance of the Republic’s relationship with the UK, Ms McEntee said the UK would continue to be “an important and valuable” ally to the Republic after Brexit, but insisted the EU had merely reiterated its declared position.
“The UK will continue to be an important and valuable country for us post-Brexit,” she said. “It has been our closest neighbour and friend on many big issues. After Brexit, we don’t want that to change.
“What we can’t do throughout these negotiations is to engage with bilaterals with the UK. If we do that, our position is gone. The position of the EU 27 is gone.
“It doesn’t mean ostracising or alienating anyone. The EU 27 merely reiterated the position that we can’t break up the single market. We can’t have the re-imposition of a hard border in Ireland.
“How [the summit] came across or was portrayed, we can’t predict that. But we need to move forward and try to reach an agreement. We need to be very strong in our commitment to the EU but to get the best possible outcome overall.”
On the issue of Northern Ireland, Ms McEntee said the Government would not be making any contingency plans for customs checks at the Border in the event the backstop is reneged upon and a hard border is imposed.
“We are planning and have begun recruiting 450 staff, but that is focused very much on an east-west basis,” she said. “When we say we cannot countenance any kind of return to a hard border, we mean it, and that’s very much the position we’ve taken.
“The fact it is so intrinsically linked to the Good Friday Agreement means we need to do everything in our power and redouble our negotiations efforts to realise a deal.”
Ms McEntee also called on the British government to “urgently” produce its promised proposals on the backstop.
“The UK has provided guarantees on avoiding a hard border and made clear commitments on agreeing a backstop. There are now just weeks left to deliver on these commitments and to conclude the withdrawal agreement.
“In this regard, it is welcomed that in her statement last Friday, prime minister May promised to come forward with proposals on the backstop. These proposals should be tabled urgently so that the negotiating teams can engage constructively on finalising the legal text of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”