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Taoiseach warns Brexit negotiations could stretch into December

The Tániaste said a time limit on the backstop is not a runner.

British Prime Minster Theresa May
British Prime Minster Theresa May
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Oct 15th 2018, 1:25 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has suggested that a Brexit deal could now be pushed out to December. 

Speaking to reporters in Dublin today, he said:

“As regards to negotiations, they’re still ongoing. I know some people were optimistic about an agreement, a withdrawal agreement protocol this week, I have to say I always thought that was unlikely,” Varadkar said. 

I figure November, December is probably the best opportunity for a deal.

“We’re always open to compromise … but there are some fundamentals that we can’t compromise on and that really is  the need for the United Kingdom to honour its commitments made back last December, which is that we will have a withdrawal agreement and as part of that withdrawal agreement there must be a legally operable and legally binding assurance that, no matter what happens, no hard border will emerge on the island of Ireland,” he said. 

He went on to add that he doesn’t want to “create the wrong impression” by suggesting December. 

“That’s not what I’m saying. The possibility remains open to have an emergency summit in November if we can get to a deal, but if we don’t have an emergency summit in November, well then it will be a regular summit in December,” he said. 

He said a no deal for the United Kingdom would be “catastrophic” and a “disaster”, while such a scenario would be “really bad” for Ireland and “relatively bad” for the EU. 

Varadkar said he spoke to British Prime Minister Theresa May last night where he was assured of her commitment to “getting a deal done” and of the promises made previously that a backstop arrangement would be contained in the final withdrawal agreement. 

Earlier today, Tánaiste Simon Coveney called on British Prime Minister Theresa May to honour the commitments the British government made in March and December. 

He called the stalled talks between London and Brussels’ chief negotiators as “frustrating and disappointing”. 

‘Frustrating’ 

Speaking ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg this morning, Coveney said, “I think we are frustrated, but we are still pretty calm about that. I think everybody would have liked to have seen clarity on the withdrawal agreement.

“Time is moving on, ratification mechanisms are going to take time, whether that is in Westminster or the European Parliament and so I think there was a real effort over the last ten days by the two negotiating teams to intensify engagement so they could have recommendations for political leaders this week, but that hasn’t proved possible.”

Yesterday it emerged the two sides failed to agree on a draft divorce settlement after stalling over the issue of the Irish border once again.

It comes just days before a make-or-break European Union summit takes place.

Britain’s Brexit spokesman Dominic Raab made an unannounced trip to the EU capital for talks with his opposite number Michel Barnier, briefly raising hopes that a deal might be in the offing.

But negotiations ended without a breakthrough, including on the issue of trade to and from Northern Ireland, which has emerged as a possible deal breaker.

Confirming that negotiations have been suspended, Coveney said the two negotiating teams have agreed to “disengage”, until after the this week’s EU Council meeting.

“That is frustrating and disappointing from an Irish perspective as the country that is more exposed to the fallout of Brexit than any other country outside the EU itself. We want to see an outcome that settles nerves that allows us to move ahead with a sensible Brexit. I still think it is possible to do that, but clearly it is going to take a bit more time than people had hoped,” he said. 

Diplomatic sources confirmed that a meeting of the “diplomatic sherpas” – senior officials representing the leaders of EU members – that had been planned for Monday to review a draft deal has been cancelled.

“The commission informed the ambassadors that no deal was reached today. There will be no further negotiations until the summit,” one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Substantial progress

Other sources familiar with Barnier’s meeting with EU ambassadors confirmed this, and one added that “certain countries insisted that preparations for a ‘no deal’ be accelerated”.

Raab’s department said “real progress” had been made in some areas, but admitted “there remain a number of unresolved issues relating to the backstop”. 

“The UK is still committed to making progress at the October European Council,” it promised, referring to this week’s Brussels summit.

Cabinet meeting Dominic Raab Source: David Mirzoeff via PA Images

Coveney said all that is being sought is a follow through on commitments the British government made in December and March in relation to the backstop. 

“We are not looking for anything new here,” he said, adding that last December it was agreed that in the absence of agreeing something better there would be a backstop in place. He said this promise was recommitted to in March when it was agreed that backstop would legally operate in the withdrawal agreement “unless and until something else is agreed”. 

“In other words, no one wants to ever trigger the backstop,  but it needs to be there as an insurance mechanism to calm nerves that we are not going to see physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland,” said Coveney. 

The Tánaiste said the Irish government is seeking “no more and no less than the follow through of those commitments and that is what needs to happen”. 

Time limit 

The idea that a time limit could be placed on the backstop is a new idea floated by the British side. 

However, Coveney ruled out such a notion, stating that it was not included in the previous two agreements. 

The backstop can’t be time limited, that is new, it hasn’t been there before. 
Nobody was suggesting that back in March, that the backstop would be time limited, picking date a date in the future as an end point for the backstop…

He said it was always the case the backstop would be contained in the withdrawal agreement, unless and until something else replaces it. “That is all we are asking for,” he added. 

With Britain set to leave the bloc at the end of March, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker had demanded “substantial progress” this week, and Raab’s visit stoked optimism.

Collective authority

Yesterday’s flurry of activity came as May prepared to face what one newspaper cartoon dubbed “hell week”.

Tomorrow, she will rake over the Irish border issue with her cabinet, amid speculation that more ministers could resign if she ploughs on with her proposals.

David Davis, who quit as Brexit secretary in July over May’s Chequers plan, wrote in The Sunday Times that her plans were “completely unacceptable” and urged ministers to “exert their collective authority” this week.

On Wednesday, May goes to Brussels, still facing the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster will travel to Dublin today for talks with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

Toxic

It comes a day after leaked emails from Foster revealed that the DUP is willing to trigger a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, which the party now feels is the likeliest outcome from negotiations with the EU.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and deputy leader Michelle O’Neill will also travel to London to meet with May and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Twelfth of July celebrations - Londonderry Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill Source: Brian Lawless via PA Images

Those meetings will focus on Brexit negotiations and the lack of a talks process to establish the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ahead of the meeting, McDonald hit out at the “toxic” confidence and supply arrangement between the DUP and May’s Conservative Party in Westminster.

“The DUP have aligned themselves with the hard right of the Brexiteers at the cost of imposing a hard border in Ireland, undermining our agreements and crashing out of the EU without an agreement,” she said.

“The DUP do not represent the majority of people in the north on Brexit, nor our economic interests and oppose the Good Friday Agreement.

“They cannot be allowed to set the pace for Brexit or political progress in the North.”

‘Probably inevitable’

Meanwhile, one of May’s Northern Irish allies has said it was “probably inevitable” that Britain will leave the European Union next March without any agreement.

Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman for the DUP, spoke after last-ditch talks failed to reach an agreement. 

Brexit DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson Source: Michael McHugh via PA Images

“Given the way in which the EU has behaved and the corner they’ve put Theresa May into, there’s no deal which I can see at present which will command a majority in the House of Commons,” he told the Belfast Newsletter, a local newspaper.

“So it is probably inevitable that we will end up with a no deal scenario.”

“I think that anybody looking at it objectively would say that what is on offer from the EU is a far worse deal than a no deal, and therefore she’d be mad to be railroaded into accepting it.”

With additional reporting by Christina Finn, Hayley Halpin and Stephen McDermott.

© AFP 2018 

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