No alternatives to Border backstop stand up to scrutiny, says Coveney
Minister stresses Ireland and EU want to provide ‘reassurances’ to aid approval of deal
Palestinian authority foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki and Tánaiste Simon Coveney during the EU/Arab League meeting in Brussels. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
Ireland and the EU are prepared to, and want to, provide backstop “reassurances and clarity to the UK to assist the Brexit ratification process on the UK side,” Simon Coveney reiterated in Brussels on Monday.
But he insisted that alternatives to the backstop had been exhaustively examined and tested.
“From our perspective on some of the core issues particularly around the Irish protocol and the backstop,” the Minister for Foreign Affairs told journalists, “it [the withdrawal agreement] is already a series of compromises that is actually designed around British red lines. This is a UK plan as well as an Irish and EU one to solve a very important issue.”
The so-called backstop is an insurance policy aimed at avoiding a hard border in Ireland. It would keep the UK in a common customs area with the EU in the absence of a future trade agreement.
Mr Coveney was in Brussels for a meeting between EU foreign ministers and their Arab League counterparts.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be in Brussels on Wednesday for Brexit-related meetings with the European Commission and European Council presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk respectively. The discussions which will touch on Theresa May’s hopes to renegotiate the backstop will focus primarily on Irish preparedness for a no-deal scenario.
Asked if the British prime minister search for alternatives to the backstop was futile, Mr Coveney said that “the Irish protocol in the WA [withdrawal agreement] already allows for ‘alternative arrangements’ or alternative solutions to the backstop and if they are there they can replace the backstop. That’s always been the point here. The problem has been that none of those ideas around alternative arrangements have actually stood up to scrutiny. We certainly haven’t seen any that have.
“We spent well over a year looking at different ways of providing the guarantee of no physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland to protect the all-Ireland economy which reinforces the peace process. Many, many, many hours were involved in coming up with a legally credible and pragmatic solution to that problem.
“And in that process we looked at lots of different alternative arrangements and ideas and I have yet to hear any new thinking that goes beyond what has already been tested. And this is the issue here. What Ireland is being asked to do by some in Westminster is to essentially do away with an agreed solution between the UK and EU negotiators and to replace it with wishful thinking.”
Earlier, commission officials met a delegation from the House of Commons committee on Brexit led by Labour MP Hilary Benn. They asked if the EU would have a problem in turning the recent letter of assurance over the backstop given to the UK into a protocol to the withdrawal agreement.
European Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr told them this was not under consideration and that the withdrawal agreement, including provision for protocols, was not up for renegotiation.
The letter spells out a common understanding of the withdrawal agreement and a joint view of the backstop as a malign necessity that can only be temporary “unless and until” it is replaced by an agreement on a future relationship which provides the sort of guarantees necessary to safeguard a frictionless border.
Mr Benn told reporters after the meeting: “I got the impression that they might be prepared to consider some additional statement or legal protocol.” But Mr Selmayr responded on Twitter: “On the EU side, nobody is considering this.”
Brexiteers have dismissed the letter of assurance as being aspirational and without legal standing. Turning it into a specific protocol would give it that legal standing but also represent an reopening of the withdrawal agreement, a step that the EU has so far resisted strenuously.