London and Dublin cautious on prospect of Brexit accord

Coveney warns agreement within UK cabinet not same as overall member state approval

Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt: deal may be agreed within three weeks but signing it off within the next week is “probably pushing it”. Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP

Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt: deal may be agreed within three weeks but signing it off within the next week is “probably pushing it”. Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP

 

Ministers on both sides of the Irish Sea have played down the prospect of an imminent Brexit agreement as Conservative Brexiteers threatened to vote down Theresa May’s proposed deal. Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said a deal could be agreed within three weeks but signing it off within the next seven days was “probably pushing it”.

The British cabinet is expected to meet in the coming days to approve a proposal for a review mechanism that would allow Britain to leave a backstop arrangement by mutual consent with the EU. Tánaiste Simon Coveney cautioned on Thursday, however, that it should not be assumed that just because the UK cabinet agrees on something that an overall deal has been agreed with the EU. 

“I would urge caution that an imminent breakthrough is not necessarily to be taken for granted, not by a long shot,” he told a Ireland Canada Business Association conference at Iveagh House in Dublin.

“Repeatedly, as people seem to make the same mistake over and over again: assuming that if the British cabinet agree something, well then that’s it then, then everything is agreed.”

Mr Coveney described the Brexit talks as a negotiation that required agreement not just by the British government but with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier who represents the other 27 EU countries.

‘Intensive efforts’

“While of course we want progress to be made – we want it to be made as quickly as possible because time is moving on – I would urge caution that people don’t get carried away on the back of rumour in the coming days,” he said.

“That being said, intensive efforts are continuing this week to try and find a basis for agreement.”

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said he expected the House of Commons to vote against any deal that included a backstop that Britain could not leave unilaterally.

“Are we going to have to wait until the Irish Government says it’s okay to leave? If so, that’s not acceptable. Are we going to have to wait until it’s convenient for the [European] Commission to say when we leave? If so, it’s not acceptable. I suspect that they have not pinned down any of these issues and they need to be pinned down before parliament votes,” he told the BBC.

Frictionless trade

Mr Davis suggested that if MPs rejected the deal Ms May brings back from Brussels, the EU would be willing to offer a better agreement.

Earlier, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab admitted that he had not fully understood how much Britain depends on a single channel crossing and why it was so essential to have frictionless trade after Brexit.

“I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this. But if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing,” he said.

“I don’t think it is a question so much of the risk of major shortages, but I think probably the average consumer might not be aware of the full extent to which the choice of goods that we have in the stores is dependent on one or two very specific trade routes.”