Proposed UK law to prevent Brexit extension ‘strange’ says Coveney
British government deciding to ‘tie itself’ by ruling out transition period extension
Legislation proposed by British prime minister Boris Johnson to outlaw any extension of the next phase of Brexit negotiations past 2020 has been described as “strange” by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
The upcoming phase of Brexit transition negotiations will focus on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, dealing with issues such as the trade relationship, security issues and fishing rights.
It was agreed Britain would remain in the EU for a transition period while these issues were worked out. The Withdrawal Agreement, the name given to the Brexit deal agreed in October, allows for an option to extend the transition period for a further two years if required.
Following the resumption of the UK government, Downing Street sources briefed British media on plans to outlaw extending the negotiations and to fully exit the EU in 2020, as one of the Conservative Party’s first actions under the new Commons majority it commands following the UK election last week.
However key EU figures – including chief negotiator Michel Barnier – have expressed scepticism a deal can be agreed in time, raising the fresh prospect of a no-deal break unless there is an extension.
The European Union will have to limit talks on its future relationship with the United Kingdom to avoiding another cliff-edge, a senior EU official said on Tuesday, after Britain confirmed it would definitely leave the bloc by the end of 2020.
“Given all the signals . . . we are well advised to take seriously that the UK does not intend to go for an extension of the transition and we need to be prepared for that,” said Sabine Weyand, director-general of the EU’s trade department.
“That means in the negotiations we have to look at those issues where failing to reach an agreement by 2020 would lead to another cliff-edge situation,” she told a European Policy Centre think tank seminar.
Ms Weyand said the European Commission was ready to start negotiations very quickly after Britain formally left the EU on January 31st and was very clear about its priorities.
Any duty-free, quota-free deal would need to be accompanied with guarantees of a level playing field in areas such as state aid and competition, environmental and labour law and taxation.
A No 10 source said: “Last week the public voted for a government that would get Brexit done and move this country forward – and that’s exactly what we intend to do starting this week.
“Our manifesto made clear that we will not extend the implementation period and the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill will legally prohibit the government agreeing to any extension.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Coveney described the move as a “strange decision” and one that would see the “UK deciding to tie itself in terms of options”.
“Nobody is forcing the UK to apply for an extended transition period but they have the option to do it if they want to up until the middle of next summer, and what Boris Johnson is doing is essentially ruling out an option that was put into the Withdrawal Agreement for Britain,” he said.
The previous Brexit logjam was resolved in October following concessions by the British side to agree to an effective border down the Irish Sea in the exit deal, a previous red line fiercely opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party.
Mr Coveney said the EU will approach the next phase of talks on the future relationship to “try to move as quickly as we can,” he told reporters.
“We all know that the negotiations post a British exit from the EU is going to be very complicated, it’s going to deal with multiple areas, not just a free trade agreement, it has also got to deal with security, data, fishing. There are multiple sectors which will require detailed negotiations,” he said.
“The EU hasn’t missed a deadline yet, it has been the UK that has missed deadlines in the past. I just think if we’ve learned anything from the first round of Brexit negotiations … [It] is that we shouldn’t be closing off options,” Mr Coveney said.
Elsewhere, a Seanad report on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has urged the EU to show patience and flexibility with the UK in the next phase of the Brexit process.
The Seanad Select Committee expects negotiations on a future EU-UK relationship to be “long and complicated”, despite the ambitious timetable of the British government to conclude talks in 10 months.
It has been recommended to the committee that UK domestic legislation be amended to transpose the Belfast Agreement into law.
Although the committee concedes its cannot force the UK’s hand, members hope upon reading the report, the Taoiseach and the EU Commission could make the suggestion to Mr Johnson’s government.
The law change would remedy what is seen as “unequal citizenship” due to lack of clarification on retained EU legal rights, which may only apply to those who identify as Irish, which is contrary to the Belfast Agreement.