Coveney: No EU disquiet on border inaction

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has strongly denied that European leaders have become frustrated with Ireland over its failure to plan to secure the border in the case of a no-deal Brexit. At this week’s EU summit, German chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that the EU establish a “special taskforce” on how to prevent a hard Irish border in a no-deal Brexit, warning that Ireland faces the nightmare scenario in just three weeks if nothing is done.

The Irish Examiner has learned that EU leaders discussed in detail for the first time the pressing need for a “fall-back” solution to the looming crisis, at a crunch summit meeting on Thursday night. Speaking at his party’s national conference in Wexford, Mr Coveney said the sensitivities around the border are well understood.

“First of all, I don’t accept your assumption that there is clearly a frustration with Ireland,” said Mr Coveney. “There isn’t actually. There is an understanding across the EU that the border question is a very emotive and very political question on this island.”

In London, British prime minister Theresa May sent a letter to her MPs yesterday, suggesting she might not bring her EU withdrawal deal back to parliament for a third time next week if there was not enough support for it to be passed.

“If it appears there is not sufficient support to bring the deal back next week, or the House rejects it again, we can ask for another extension before April 12 — but that will involve holding European Parliament elections,” she wrote in a letter seen by the BBC. “If it appears that there is sufficient support and the Speaker permits it, we can bring the deal back next week and if it is approved we can leave on 22 May.”

In Brussels, after five hours of intense talks, the EU summit agreed to delay next Friday’s Brexit deadline until either April 12 or May 22, with the later date only on the table if MPs back the twice-rejected EU-UK deal next week. However, high-level sources confirmed that once Ms May left the meeting, EU leaders raised serious concerns over the no-deal threat and how it could cause a hard border.

Sources said Ms Merkel was particularly vocal on the issue, repeatedly telling the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier a “special” solution must be found. While it is understood no formal request was made for a special internal EU group to be set up to help avoid the risk, it was agreed that the existing Barnier Brexit taskforce would ramp up work on finding a way to side-step a no-deal border over the next three weeks. One official said it was “the first time” EU leaders had tried to “crystalise” what no-deal means in practical terms.

Asked about the talks at an end-of-summit press conference in Brussels, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that while no new “task force” is being established, discussions did take place on “those kind of difficult discussions we’ve said we’ll have to have”.

“What that derives from is something we’ve spoken about before, which is what would happen in a no-deal scenario,” said Mr Varadkar. “How would we uphold the Good Friday Agreement and keep the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland open and still fulfil our obligations under the European treaties?”

Mr Varadkar said he believes the only way to avoid a hard border is “special arrangements, and the detail of those we’ll need to work through”, adding: “If you want to know what they look like, they look like the backstop.”

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