Tánaiste Simon Coveney and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier have indicated they are willing to negotiate on the March backstop deal in a bid to prevent a deeply damaging no-deal, crash-out Brexit.
The Tánaiste and the EU official hinted at the potential move after British prime minister Theresa May insisted the current backstop is not workable and as Mr Coveney admitted for the first time Ireland is preparing for a worst-case scenario.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s News at One programme after meeting Mr Barnier in Brussels, Mr Coveney said the EU is still insistent the December “cast-iron” Irish border guarantee and other customs union issues must remain.
In particular, despite reports yesterday suggesting Brussels may be open to discussions on the Irish border, Mr Coveney said this is a non-runner, and that the entirety of the UK remaining in the customs union is unlikely as it could give British businesses an unfair “competitive advantage”.
However, noting the British prime minister’s public rejection of the related March backstop deal yesterday, Mr Coveney said there is still room for negotiation.
And acknowledging the October negotiations deadline, he said Ms May’s own white paper last week could be a “basis” for further talks.
“They’re [the EU] anxious to get the UK negotiating team now into a serious and detailed negotiation, to intensify that negotiation over the summer, to try and find ways forward on the basis of the EU position and the UK position now. We haven’t had a basis for negotiations for five months, so the British white paper is the basis for a real discussion.
“I don’t think it will be easy, but the EU has always said if the UK is willing to soften its red lines then the EU would show flexibility where it could,” said Mr Coveney. “I don’t think we will see the white paper agreed in full, or anything like it. But it’s certainly the basis though for a detailed and agreed negotiation.”
At a later press conference in Brussels, Mr Barnier echoed Mr Coveney’s comments, saying while the March backstop plan remains in place the eventual deal will “not necessarily be ours”.
Noting that “time is moving swiftly” as there are now just 13 weeks before the crucial October summit, Mr Barnier said there are “several” white paper parts which are “very useful”.
He said while “we are not going to negotiate on the basis of the white paper because that’s the British paper”, “elements” of it could be used to resolve the ongoing Brexit stand-off. He said he will suggest the move to British negotiators next week.
Meanwhile, Mr Coveney confirmed Ireland is preparing for a no-deal Brexit despite Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Wednesday denying a “doomsday” contingency plan was in place.
“I don’t believe we’re heading for a no-deal Brexit, I’ve never believed that. That doesn’t mean we’re not preparing for it, of course we are, we’re preparing for all eventualities. But I think a no-deal Brexit is a very remote possibility. I don’t believe there is a majority in the House of Commons who will support that and I don’t believe there’s anyone in the EU who wants that,” he said.
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