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Coveney warns that 'time is running out' after Brexit meeting with Barnier

The meeting took place against the backdrop of a chaotic week in UK politics.

Simon Coveney and Michel Barnier met in Dublin in June.
Simon Coveney and Michel Barnier met in Dublin in June.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Updated Sep 27th 2019, 2:00 PM

TÁNAISTE SIMON COVENEY has warned that “time is running out” to reach a withdrawal agreement following a meeting with chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels this afternoon. 

With no serious progress made on the issue of the Irish backstop and the border, concerns are growing that a deal cannot be secured before the Brexit deadline of 31 October. 

“There are still significant gaps between both sides,” Coveney said this afternoon after his meeting with Barnier. 

“The clear message that I would have got from Michel Barnier today is that his team and he himself are available 24/7 to negotiate towards trying to get a deal done. 

“But that has to be on the basis of a serious proposal coming forward from the UK side. That hasn’t happened yet. And until there is a serious proposal in writing that can be the basis for negotiation then the gaps that are wide at the moment will remain.”

Said Coveney: “Time is running out. We need to move this process on but, really, the onus is on the British Prime Minister and his team to allow that to happen by putting serious proposals on the table that the EU can negotiate around to try and find a way of getting a deal done here.”

On 20 September, the UK Brexit minister Stephen Barclay met with Barnier and submitted three papers with ideas on replacing the backstop. 

“There is significant work still to do but there are serious discussions that are taking place,” Barclay said after those talks. However, the Irish government and the EU have been less optimistic about progress towards securing a deal. 

In a short meeting between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in New York earlier this week, Varadkar said that there was still a “very wide gap” between what the UK is proposing and what the EU wants to achieve. 

Meanwhile, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has said it will be Britain’s responsibility if a withdrawal agreement is not reached with the EU. 

In an interview with German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine, Juncker said he and EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier are “working hard” to reach a deal and said it would be “a disaster” for the UK and EU if one is not reached. 

“For an exit of the British from the EU without agreement would be a disaster for the United Kingdom and for the European continent,” Juncker said.

“Our chief negotiator Michel Barnier and I are doing everything we can to reach an agreement. If this fails in the end, the responsibility lies solely with the British side.”

brexit-debate-in-the-eu-parliament Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier Source: DPA/PA Images

Given the political chaos in Britain at present, it remains possible for the UK to leave without a deal on 31 October.

Juncker added that negotiations on a future trade relationship between Britain and the EU would be complicated by a disorderly Brexit.

He said: “We want to and need to sign a free trade agreement.”

Today’s meeting between Coveney and Barnier comes following a torrid week for Johnson. 

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On Tuesday, the UK Supreme Court ruled that his decision to suspend parliament was unlawful and void, triggering an early return to Westminster for MPs and setting up a fiery day of debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday. 

Opposition MPs have vowed to ensure that Johnson is forced to comply with the Benn Act, which forces the government to seek an extension from the EU if a deal hasn’t been secured by 19 October. 

Coveney today repeated that the any solution put forward by the UK government must “must avoid a hard border, fully protect the Good Friday Agreement and North-South cooperation, and preserve the all-island economy”.

“To date there is nothing else on the table that achieves the same outcome as the backstop,” he said. 

Coveney said that at the moment “the focus is on trying to get a deal quite frankly” but added that “the focus will shift to whether or not an extension is appropriate”. 

Coveney added that “there would need to be good reason” for an extension, however. 

With reporting from Cónal Thomas.

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