Tactics of UK’s Brexit negotiating team ‘deplorable’, Ahern says

Former taoiseach says the ‘whole game’ with the UK is to ‘kick the can down the road’

The UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost will on Tuesday set out Britain’s demands for changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol amid a stand-off with the EU over the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

The UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost will on Tuesday set out Britain’s demands for changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol amid a stand-off with the EU over the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

 

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has described the tactics of the UK’s Brexit negotiating team as “deplorable”.

The European Union was trying to find solutions to the situation while it looked like “the representative from the UK was out to do everything to make life almost impossible,” Mr Ahern told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny show.

“He might think that’s very smart negotiation, but I think it’s deplorable. In normal business people just don’t do things like that,” Mr Ahern said.

The protocol left Northern Ireland under some EU trade rules after Brexit to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. Border checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland from Britain have angered unionists and led to a threat from the UK to suspend the arrangement.

British Brexit negotiator David Frost is due to set out the UK objections to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the agreement in a speech in Lisbon on Tuesday, timed in advance of the EU’s publication of its proposals to overcome difficulties with the protocol.

Downing Street has said the ECJ role in ensuring compliance with the rules of the protocol is “a central issue” for the UK, but Irish Government officials said that nobody in Northern Ireland had raised the ECJ as an issue.

Mr Ahern said that while the UK had “rolled over a few with a few countries”, it had not signed any significant trade deals and was experiencing major problems with staffing and filling positions.

People from other countries were gone, and this was affecting the UK and its budgetary situation.

“On the day of our Budget where we’re spending €4.6 billion they have a paper out last night saying that they’re going to have cuts of several billion soon, in their Budget paper of next week.

“They’re in a bad position from a trade point of view, it’s not in any one’s interest to see them in that position.

“Somewhere along the way they might realise that Brexit was not at all a great position and then start trying to deal with the EU in a fair way.”

Mr Ahern said that at the moment the Conservative party viewed “fighting and bashing the EU” as being tactically in their political interests, it was likely to continue as long as public opinion continued to think that this was a good way of dealing with diplomatic relationships.

“Somewhere along the way” UK prime minister Boris Johnson might decide that it was “not such a great idea to be fighting with the EU.

“Are the British stupid enough to go into a full trade war, that’s the question? I don’t think Boris is that silly, to go into a full trade war, the EU has a lot of weight of ways of really hurting the UK if it gets into that business”.

Frustrations

Mr Ahern said he understood Simon Coveney’s frustration at the leaking of information and that European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic must be very annoyed at efforts to undermine his work before it was presented.

“Frost wanted a fresh deal out of the negotiations. That was not the way to handle the business because the EU’s document isn’t coming out until tomorrow and then what he did over the weekend was he started leaking parts of the speech he was going to make in Lisbon today, it’s not the way to carry on negotiations and it’s very unhelpful, but it is part of the continual process of what the British are at, I don’t think it’s too hard to work out what the game is.”

The “whole game” with the UK was to try to “kick the can down the road”. They’ve been at it since 2016 and they’re at it again, Mr Ahern said.

“I think they have it in their sights to get out of the Protocol altogether - Boris currently says privately that he was misled (by whom?) this is the question, he was negotiating with the EU, but I don’t think he took much part of the negotiations. He wasn’t negotiating with the Irish government, he was having meetings with them, but I don’t think the British have moved away from what the Protocol was designed or the Withdrawal Agreement was designed for, and that was to avoid a hard border between the UK and the Single Market operating in the Republic of Ireland.

“What they are endeavouring to do is have a position where Northern Ireland is in the Single Market, but does not have to comply with any of the rules of the Single Market. In fairness to the EU, they’ve made it perfectly clear, regardless of where the border was, a land border or a sea border, you couldn’t have a position where you get the benefits of the Single Market without having to pay the checks and balances. That is the crux of the matter.”

Mr Ahern said that he felt the issue of the European Court of Justice was a “red herring”, it was nothing new, it had been mentioned by the UK last July.

“I think that’s a bit of a red herring in the whole debate - they know that if there’s a breakdown in the end somebody has to arbitrate and they know the European Court of Justice is the way that everything in Europe operates. They’re throwing that in knowing the EU will say no to that.

“By his own admission Frost had committed to three weeks of intense negotiations to try and resolve the issues - he threw in the European Court of Justice knowing that was the one issue they wouldn’t deal with. Simon rightly said that was another red line they were throwing in, I honestly don’t believe ... that’s just trying to muddy the waters, we shouldn’t take it too serious I think.

“Frost is a guy who is not trying to find solutions. Gove was a guy who was very good at finding solutions - that’s been his track record, like him or not. Frost just seems very good at taking the hardline Brexit position and he looks as if he’s determined to go on with that.

Mr Ahern said he did not think the UK would trigger Article 16. “I think the Brexit argument is going to get worse not better. That argument will probably not take place this side of Christmas.

“If there’s a trade war, either a selective one or a complete one in 2022 - that will not suit anybody, but Frost is pushing his luck on this.”