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Simon Coveney: 'Renegotiating a deal that took two years to agree on doesn't seem realistic'

Jean-Claude Juncker said there’s “no room whatsoever for the renegotiation” of the Brexit deal.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland Simon Coveney.
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland Simon Coveney.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Updated Dec 11th 2018, 8:57 AM

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May is to visit Germany’s Angela Merkel today as she works to salvage her Brexit deal, the day after delaying a parliamentary vote on it to avoid a crushing defeat.

May will first go to The Hague for talks with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte before meeting Merkel in Berlin, as she struggles to unite MPs behind her faltering plan.

The embattled leader is facing a rebellion in her own party and from parliamentary allies that threatens to sink both the agreement and her leadership.

“I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances,” May told mutinous MPs yesterday on her planned dash to Europe ahead of an EU summit later this week.

“I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this house has expressed,” she said.

But European Council president Donald Tusk warned the bloc would not reopen the agreement secured in November after months of negotiations, with Brexit looming on 29 March.

“We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification.

As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario.

EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker agreed with that sentiment when he said there’s “no room whatsoever for the renegotiation” of the Brexit deal.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this morning, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that the EU Council would seek ways to reassure the British parliament that the backstop is “nothing to be feared”.

[Brexiteers and the DUP] have, in my view, turned the backstop into something that it isn’t, and have created fears around the backstop.

“There’s no ulterior motive here, the backstop is an insurance mechanism to safeguard the peace process. The backstop is not something to be feared by the British parliament.”

But he also said that there wouldn’t be changes to the current deal:

“There were hard-won compromises on both sides, as outlined by the UK. To renegotiate a deal that took two years to negotiate doesn’t seem realistic.”

Coveney said that he would bring a detailed paper to Cabinet today the contingency plans for the “central case scenario” – which means if there is a deal.

Although the government has been making preparations for Brexit on the assumption that there would be a deal, Coveney said that the focus will shift slightly towards no-deal Brexit preparations.

“I still think a no-deal Brexit is unlikely… [but] if the worst were to happen that Ireland would be ready.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tusk spoke over the phone yesterday, the Department of the Taoiseach confirmed. 

“They agreed that the Withdrawal Agreement is the best option and could not be renegotiated. They also agreed that preparations for a ‘no deal’ outcome should intensify,” a spokesperson said.

Tusk said the other 27 EU leaders would discuss Brexit at a special meeting on Thursday, at the start of a pre-planned summit in Brussels which May will attend.

Lawmaker outrage

MPs in the House of Commons were due to vote tonight on the deal with Brussels, which covers the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union after 46 years.

But facing a huge rebellion of her own Tory MPs, primarily over the backstop clause designed to keep open the Irish border, May conceded she expected to lose and delayed it.

The decision sent the pound plunging, and both sides said they would step up preparations for the potentially disastrous scenario that Britain leaves with no deal.

The delay also prompted outrage among lawmakers, with one leading Conservative rebel, Brexit-supporter Mark Francois, accusing the government of having “hidden in the toilets”.

In a sign of the uproar, an opposition Labour MP was ejected from the House of Commons after picking up the ceremonial mace in protest at the government’s conduct.

The mace – a symbol of royal authority required to sit in its place for parliament to pass laws – was last taken from its place in protest in 2009.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is facing calls to table a no-confidence vote in the prime minister, secured an emergency debate for today on the decision to pull the vote.

“The government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray,” he said.

Labour added it would hold off on trying to unseat May for now.

“We will put down a motion of no confidence when we judge it most likely to be successful,” a party spokesperson said.

Political chaos

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, expressed his disbelief at the political chaos engulfing Westminster.

“After two years of negotiations, the Tory government wants to delay the vote,” he tweeted. ”It’s time they make up their mind!”

May spoke at the weekend to Tusk, Merkel and Varadkar, raising speculation they offered some hope of further concessions.

EU leaders have repeatedly warned they have no appetite to reopen a divorce deal.

But some bloc officials have mentioned the possibility of changes to the accompanying political declaration on future trade ties.

Anand Menon, European politics professor at King’s College London, said May needed Brussels to make it “absolutely clear” no major concessions are on offer – no matter who is prime minister.

“What they might do is add some language to the political declaration, not the withdrawal agreement,” he added. 

“I imagine they’ll add some language saying that both sides remain convinced that we’ll never need to use the backstop”.

- With reporting by Gráinne Ní Aodha and Órla Ryan.

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