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Phil Hogan: 'I don’t think the British are in a very coherent position at the moment'

Ireland’s EU commissioner said that the Irish government’s patience is wearing thin.

European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan.
European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

Gráinne Ní Aodha reports from Brussels:

AHEAD OF THE summit between EU member states and the UK on the issue of Brexit, there isn’t much optimism that the UK will put forward a solution to the Irish border issue.

Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan told journalists yesterday that the EU and Irish government “were waiting patiently” for a solution, or a suggestion, but that “time and patience” was wearing out.

“Everybody signed up to the backstop in December, everybody wants a frictionless border, it’s just we don’t know how the UK proposals are going to meet those objectives,” he said.

We’re waiting patiently. We’ll keep trying until October, if the UK continues the way they have been for the past couple of months, without coming forward with proposals as promised, well then you’re facing a difficult situation of a ‘no deal’.

Just months before the EU parliament and UK House of Commons are scheduled to vote on the final Brexit deal, EU negotiators aren’t as advanced in negotiations as they would like to be.

The UK officially leaves the EU in March 2019, two years after Article 50 was triggered.

It’ll then enter the two-year transition phase of negotiations where trade will be debated (as of now, a new trade arrangement cannot be discussed as the UK is still technically an EU member state).

But despite this limited timeline left to hammer home a deal, the UK and EU haven’t been able to agree to workable proposal for the Irish border issue. On the 28 and 29 June the EU member states are gathering for their third major Brexit meeting.

This week also marks the two year anniversary since the Brexit referendum vote.

EU agriculture commissioner and former Fine Gael minister Hogan said “I don’t think that the British are in a very coherent position at the moment in terms of what they want”.

The big problem that the European Union has is we don’t know what the UK wants, and it takes two in any negotiation to reach an agreement. We’re waiting a long time to find out what exactly they want from negotiations.

He added: “Time is getting shorter and patience is wearing out.”

We do have understanding of Mrs May’s problems within her government and within her party and we’re watching this week to see if there’s any new changes made arising from parliamentary votes. It’s a rollercoaster from the point of view of the Irish government.

Hogan also added that “I have never seen such solidarity on any issue” the way EU member states are towards Ireland on Brexit.

Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly said that he didn’t believe that the EU would leave Ireland behind at the last minute, saying that EU leaders “would lose face” if they threw a small country like Ireland under the bus over an issue as sensitive as the Irish border.

London MEP Charles Tannock agreed with this assessment.

“There was shock in the UK to the solidarity expressed in Europe on the Irish issue.”

He said that there could easily be a special solution for Northern Ireland to allow them to work inside the EU customs union, a suggestion that the DUP have vehemently rejected.

“The DUP are very inconsistent,” Tannock said, citing its call for different VAT rates for the North to make it more competitive with Dublin, and its different social policies such as abortion and gay marriage.

“If the DUP were sensible and smart on this issue they would embrace having an alignment along the lines of the backstop… which would make them a magnet for investment and less reliant on Westminster and the United Kingdom as a whole for handouts.”

An ardent and prominent Tory ‘Remainer’, Tannock said “you couldn’t put cigarette paper” between his views and Labour MEP Seb Dance’s views on “the shambles and the tragedy of Brexit”.

“I think Brexit is a selfish and destructive act untangling 45 years of building a project together and done on a slim majority where on other issues you need a constitutional majority to make it binding.”

He was particularly harsh on members of his own party and their view on what a possible solution to the Irish issue could look like.

Brexiteers want what I call the ‘Empire II’ agenda, so we can reestablish these links which frankly is for the birds.
Some of them even think that the Republic of Ireland really should be a vassal state somehow taking orders and it would be reintegrated not into the UK but certainly in some cosy relationship out of the European Union which is completely ridiculous and unacceptable.

“But I have heard that mentioned quite loudly by members of my own party I’m afraid to say.”

Background

The UK government has so far put forward two suggestions for how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland – both of which have been dismissed by the EU as unworkable.

Plan A involves a new customs union arrangement between the UK and the EU, which is unworkable because the EU must treat all ‘third countries’ equally.

Plan B would see technology monitor the movement of goods across the border, but the EU has said that the technology to do this hasn’t been invented yet.

The Plan C option is the backstop – basically if there is no agreement on what to do on the island of Ireland in terms of trade and customs, that there would be “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland.

The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Bill between the EU and the UK, so if there is no deal, there is no backstop and a hard border would automatically go up between the Republic and the North.

There have been reports that British officials have been briefing EU member states’ governments in an attempt to convince them that the Irish border question isn’t a red line issue.

Around three quarters of the total number of issues that pertain to Brexit have been agreed upon; the problems that remain, however, are some of the most difficult.

Once a final deal is agreed, members of the European Parliament will vote whether to approve it in October; members of the UK House of Commons will do the same.

Although there’s been talk of pushing the deadline for this vote back to November or even December, the European Parliament needs three months to debate, vote on and ratify the deal, and it needs to be done before March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU.

This leaves very little time to push back the crucial, and possibly final, Brexit vote.

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