Coveney says Johnson's Brexit is 'less compatible' with open Border
Tánaiste has yet to see evidence of viable alternative to Northern Ireland backstop
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. File potograph: Alan Betson
Tánaiste Simon Coveney has accused Boris Johnson of pursuing a policy on Brexit that will make it more difficult to keep the Border open.
Mr Coveney said he had seen no evidence of a viable alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop and he did not believe a fully worked-out alternative could be agreed by October 31st, when the UK is due to leave the European Union.
“Right now, I see a British government which is articulating a vision of a kind of Brexit that they want to see that is far less, not more compatible with maintaining a frictionless, invisible border on the island of Ireland,” he told the British-Irish Association conference in Cambridge.
“From an Irish perspective what we’re seeing is an ask to remove the backstop entirely at a time when the problem it is designed to solve is being made significantly bigger by the new British government’s approach to Brexit. So you make the problem bigger and you remove the solution without any alternative.”
Mr Johnson will meet the Taoiseach in Dublin next Monday, their first meeting since the prime minister took office in July. It comes as opposition parties have agreed to block any attempt by Mr Johnson to hold a general election before November.
A Bill that completed its passage through both houses of parliament on Friday obliges the prime minister to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if he fails to secure a withdrawal agreement by October 19th. Mr Johnson plans next Monday to seek a general election on October 15th under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, but Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition parties have agreed to deny him the necessary two-thirds majority. They want to be sure that parliament is sitting when the prime minister is due to write the letter to the European Council seeking an article 50 extension.
British negotiators have suggested to the EU that the need for deeply disruptive animal and food controls on the Border could be avoided after Brexit through the establishment of an all-Ireland sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) zone. The effect of Brexit on cross-Border trade in animals and animal-based food is seen as one of the most critical challenges.
The all-Ireland SPS idea which had been raised as a possibility earlier this week by Mr Johnson, and partially endorsed by a spokesman for the DUP, was tabled for discussion by the British chief negotiator David Frost on Friday in Brussels at the second round of this week’s technical discussions with the EU’s Brexit task force.
A spokesman for the UK government last night said “the UK team presented some preliminary ideas on how any all-island SPS solutions could involve the consent of all parties and institutions with an interest, something the prime minister referred to earlier this week in parliament.
“The discussions highlighted a number of issues which would need to be considered further and it was agreed that this would be discussed again next week.”
The proposals are unlikely, however, to prove acceptable to the EU or Dublin, not least because the union’s negotiators are adamant that the backstop, an insurance policy to protect a frictionless Border until a comprehensive EU-UK trade deal is agreed, cannot be dismantled and applied piecemeal, sector by sector.
British references to “consent” would also be seen as an unacceptable suggestion that Northern Ireland might be able to pick and chose which rules – current or new – it would apply after Brexit.
The commission was last night not commenting on the proposals or the talks.