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Simon Coveney conveys 'disappointment' with Boris Johnson's four-page letter on Brexit

Donald Tusk has re-iterated the EU’s commitment to the backstop.

Simon Coveney reminded the UK of the commitments they made in 2017.
Simon Coveney reminded the UK of the commitments they made in 2017.
Image: Sam Boal

Updated Aug 20th 2019, 2:00 PM

DURING A 30 MINUTE conversation by phone with UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, Tánaiste Simon Coveney “conveyed disappointment” with Boris Johnson’s letter to the EU.

During the phonecall, which took place today, Coveney also “expressed concern at the lack of alternatives to the backstop”.

There has been a frosty reception to the UK prime minister’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, which was released last night, ahead of planned talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.  

Johnson stressed in the letter that his government wanted to achieve a divorce deal with Brussels.

“You have my personal commitment that this government will work with energy and determination to achieve an agreement. That is our highest priority,” he wrote.

Additionally today, Downing Street underlined that there will never be “infrastructure, checks or controls” at the border.

In his conversation with Barclay today, which has been described as “cordial”, Coveney reiterated Ireland’s desire to have an orderly Brexit, while also conveying disappointment at the UK government’s letter to the European Council. 

The Tánaiste also stressed the importance of the commitments made by the UK in December 2017.

Coveney said that while Ireland was always open for dialogue, the negotiation was between the UK and EU and made it clear the backstop was designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the all island economy and mitigate against the damaging impact of Brexit.

The Tanaiste expressed concern at the lack of alternatives to the backstop in the letter from the UK government and repeated the need for legal certainty on the border issue.

Despite differences, the call was described by a spokesperson for Coveney as friendly, with the Tanaiste and the Secretary of State committing to stay in touch.

Reacting to Johnson’s letter today, Tusk said that the opponents of the backstop inadvertently support the re-establishment of a hard border in Ireland.

Tusk, writing on Twitter this morning, said: “The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found. Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support reestablishing a border.”

“Even if they do not admit it,” he added. 

Brussels says the backstop is needed as a fallback option to preserve the integrity of European trade and preserve the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. 

It was included in the deal reached with the European Union by Theresa May, which was rejected three times by the British parliament earlier this year. 

A spokesperson for the European Commission said that it shared the views of Tusk. Johnson’s letter, the spokesperson said, “doesn’t provide a legal, operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on island of Ireland”.

“It does not set out what any alternative arrangements could be. In fact, it recognises that there is no guarantee that such arrangements will be in place by the end of the transition period,” they said. 

Johnson continues to insist he’s ready to leave the EU on the new scheduled exit date of October 31, with or without a deal. The prime minister tweeted this afternoon:

He insisted in his letter that the backstop was “anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state”.

In addition, keeping the UK in the customs union would prevent London from establishing a trade policy independent of EU rules, he said.

The EU has repeatedly stated that it is not ready to renegotiate the Brexit deal it reached with May.

A government source here said the purpose of the backstop was to preserve the status quo and that “the reality is Brexit itself is a threat to the GFA”. 

A Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) spokesperson said that it was an “unalterable fact” that the issue of the backstop needs to be dealt with. 

“If Europe and the Republic of Ireland are serious about ensuring and recognising that progress in Northern Ireland is founded on support from both major traditions then it will have to face the reality that the backstop is not the way forward,” the spokesperson said. 

Meanwhile Sinn Féin’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill accused Johnson of “rank hypocrisy”. 

“Brexit is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement and the Tories have shown a total and callous disregard to that agreement and to the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the north,” she said. 

“The fact is that the British government has agreed to the backstop and Boris Johnson has voted for it himself,” she added. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke with Johnson for almost an hour yesterday evening, with the two leaders restating their positions on Brexit.

The prime minister made clear that the Common Travel Area, which predates the UK and Ireland joining the EU, would not be affected by the ending of freedom of movement after Brexit, a government spokesperson said afterwards.

The two leaders also agreed to meet in Dublin in early September, with a specific date yet to be confirmed.

Johnson meet with Merkel in Berlin tomorrow and with Macron in Paris on Thursday, ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz at the end of the week.

Meanwhile, this evening the Tánaiste will be in Northern Ireland to meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Additional reporting by Dominic McGrath and Christina Finn 

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Daragh Brophy

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