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Coveney: Boris' trade talks deadline is just part of his 'Get Brexit Done' message

In a wide-ranging interview, Coveney says he isn’t trying to manoeuvre himself into a leadership contest with Leo Varadkar.

Boris Johnson with Minister Simon Coveney in Dublin in 2017.
Boris Johnson with Minister Simon Coveney in Dublin in 2017.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

TÁNAISTE SIMON COVENEY has said Boris Johnson could still seek an extension for Brexit trade talks after 2020 despite legislation. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Coveney said putting down such a tight deadline for a trade deal between the EU and the UK to be agreed is all part of the British Prime Minister’s twin narrative of ‘Getting Brexit Done’ and ‘No More Delays’. 

Johnson has altered his own Brexit Bill to make it unlawful for the British Government to extend the trade talks into 2021, giving negotiators just 11 months to thrash out a deal.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned that Johnson looks likely to embark on a “harder Brexit than we anticipated” and says he fears the UK will want to “undercut” its European rivals on food, health and product safety after exit day.

Speaking about the tight deadline for talks, Coveney said the next phase will be “difficult”. 

“I think he may regret doing that, by passing legislation, which effectively requires them to have everything done by the end of 2020, when they have the option to extend for a year or two years if they want to. It is effectively tying their own hands,” he said.

“I think the EU isn’t going to be rushed here, they’ll negotiate a trade deal, as they always do. They’ll try to do it in as timely manner as we can, because everybody wants to get this behind us and to move on. But they’re not going to rush the deal and certainly Britain are not going to get a better deal because the EU are being rushed. If that is the strategy, I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Seeking an extension past 2020

Coveney added that he wouldn’t, at this stage, ‘read too much’ into the legislative manoeuvre. 

“There’s nothing to prevent Boris Johnson, if he wants to, of seeking an extension and changing the law if has to. I mean, he has a large majority that can allow him to do it… He still has options. But from our point of view, we would want to try to be part of a negotiation that results in the closest possible relationship between Britain and Ireland, and Britain and the EU. We think that’s good for all sides,” he said. 

In terms of Ireland’s priorities heading into the talks, Coveney said he doesn’t want to see any “race to the bottom” in terms of standards and regulations, which the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier raised this month. 

If that is where Johnson is heading, then there “won’t be tariff-free or quota-free trade” according to Coveney, who added that such free trade remains the stated objective of both sides.

He said the aim is to have a trade relationship that is going to be as free as can be, with “some limited checks at the border”.

“If that is the objective, then there’s going to need to be very comprehensive level-playing field agreement across multiple sectors, from workers rights, to environmental standards, to consumer protection, to animal welfare, to food safety, and a whole range of other areas.

“What the EU will certainly not allow is that the UK will be able to trade freely into the EU single market, but not actually have equivalent standards, in terms of cost production and so on. I mean, that’s essentially creating a competitive advantage by deregulating and then expecting that you can trade without any cost to that, that’s a non starter,” he said. 

A race to the bottom?

Explaining further, he noted that if Britain’s plan “is to essentially deregulate, to move away from the kind of structured market that we have in the EU and to undermine standards and consumer safety by doing that, and environmental protections by doing that, well, then the chances of getting a trade deal that doesn’t involve tariffs and quotas is going to be very difficult”.

However, he is still hopeful of a pragmatic approach that could end up in a deal suiting both parties. 

Fishing is one sector that could prove difficult in that task, he admitted. 

It is a priority, he said, as a “significant percentage” of Ireland’s catch is taken from British waters. 

“They come into our waters too,” he added. “And we will want to try to get a comprehensive agreement on fishing between the UK and the EU that protects our fishing industry, which I think is going to be challenging.

“But again, as part of an overall trade agreement, I think it’s possible to do, whether it’s possible to do it all in 11 months, I think it is a very tough ask. And that’s why I think at the end of this process, we may need to seek more time, but let’s wait and see how that develops.”

A bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland

Johnson has also thrown out an “interesting idea”, as he describes it, of a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. 

Would such an idea be a runner? 

“I mean, anything is possible, it’s certainly a hugely expensive project,” said Coveney. 

“I mean, that’s a matter for the UK, if it’s possible to do it, certainly we wouldn’t have any objections,” he added, but stated that Ireland would not be paying anything towards the project, if it were ever to be given the green light.

ulster-powersharing A roundtable meeting at Stormont in Belfast with (left to right) Conor Murphy, Michelle O'Neill, Arlene Foster, Edwin Poots, Colum Eastwood, Robbie Butler, Steve Aiken, Julian Smith Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Simon Coveney Tanaiste. Source: Liam McBurney

Another issue that has kept the Tánaiste busy in recent months is getting Stormont back up and running. 

The DUP prevented a pre-Christmas deal to restore Stormont power-sharing and release extra British government cash for the struggling health service, the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has said. 

The British and Irish governments and at least three of the main Stormont parties including Sinn Féin want to re-establish the devolved institutions immediately and end a three-year hiatus which has seen public services suffer.

So is all blame rightly on the DUP?

“We reached a point last Thursday where four of the five parties were willing to close out the deal before Christmas, on the back of what the government were proposing, which is to essentially introduce a text or a paper that could be the basis for a foundation to reestablish a functioning Executive and Assembly.

“And the DUP weren’t able to commit to that timeline, they felt there was more work needed, more compromise needed in some of the areas that they were concerned about. We felt we simply needed to be honest with the public in terms of what the hold up was, because the other four parties certainly didn’t want to be blamed for not doing a deal before Christmas. So we simply had to call it as we saw it, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to do a deal,” said Coveney, who still “absolutely” believes that agreement can be reached before the 13 January deadline. 

Getting Stormont up and running by January 

He said work will continue over the Christmas period in order to make progress.

Reflecting on the last year in the North, Coveney said that both unionism and nationalism “have been under a lot of strain, because of the pressures that Brexit has created”.

“Northern Ireland is actually something that I think about a lot in terms of trying to manage responsibly, the legitimate aspirations of so many people in Northern Ireland whether they be unionist, or nationalist or the increasing number of people who no longer want to be categorised as either. I would like to be a positive force in terms of improving relationships in the coming year,” he said.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin recently ruled out the possibility of a border poll for at least five years if he was Taoiseach. Coveney agrees with his thinking.

When it comes to the North, things should be done “one thing at a time”, he said.

If you try to do too many things together at the same time, in a political environment that is already unstable, then you create more tension, more fear.

Conversation about Ireland’s future

However, the Tánaiste acknowledged that a conversation about the future is needed, but other matters must be prioritised first. 

“I think we need to try to create a period of some calm in Northern Ireland. We need the institutions functioning again, we need to create some trust between the parties and the political leaders in Northern Ireland as there has been a real absence of that in recent years.

“And certainly, you know, at some point in the future, we need to have the conversation around what the future of the island of Ireland looks like and how we try to accommodate the different perspectives,” he said. 

“I’m not going to agree to any specific timeline, but I think, for me, it’s about trying to solve big problems one after the other, as opposed to try to do everything at the same time, which I think would be a recipe for a lot of division and difficulties in the North.”

 Ambitions of leadership? 

fine-gael-think-in Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Would Coveney like to leave Brexit behind one day and take another shot at the Fine Gael leadership?

“I don’t really spend any time thinking about that, to be honest. I mean, I’m one of these people who looks forward, and takes things in context. I have a huge responsibility at the moment, particularly on Brexit and the North. I’m very focused on that and on my own constituency, obviously, in terms of getting local things done.

“But Brexit and the North have taken up a huge amount of my time. And hopefully I’ve tried to protect the country and Irish people through that. I mean, I haven’t even focused hugely on the general election, quite frankly. I want to see Brexit out in January, in terms of the first round of negotiations, I want to be there to see Stormont functioning, again, after three years of stagnation and tension. And, that’s really what keeps me driven.

“I’m not trying to manoeuvre my way into a new leadership contest or anything like that in Fine Gael. I think Leo is likely to lead the party for quite some time in the future, and I’ll support him in that.”

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