A series of comments in Europe led to raised eyebrows in Leinster House this week, but nothing seems to have changed on Brexit, writes Political Editor.
IT WAS beginning to look like our luck with Europe had run out. After 18 months of extraordinary solidarity from our EU friends on the need to protect Ireland from the impacts of Brexit, cracks were beginning to show.
On Monday, Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz broke ranks with his colleagues, suggesting the proposed backstop should be time-limited, something the Irish Government has repeatedly ruled out with force.
The backstop is the insurance policy that guarantees the status quo will remain at the border after Brexit by keeping the UK inside “a single EU-UK customs territory” until a trade deal can be struck. It also keeps Northern Ireland aligned to parts of the single market in terms of some rules and regulations.
It was feared Czaputowicz’s comments were not those of a lone wolf but rather the flying of a kite by some within the EU to gauge the reaction to it.
In the Irish context, if the Government wants to fly a kite and see how it goes, it sends a junior minister or an MEP out to make a mad suggestion and see if it flies or not. If it goes belly up, the Taoiseach has plausible deniability.
On Tuesday, the chief spokesman for European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker dropped what appeared to be a bombshell when he said it’s “pretty obvious” border controls would be needed.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the commission confirmed there will be a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Speaking to reporters, commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said it was “pretty obvious” that border infrastructure would be necessary if the UK were to leave without a deal.
He said while the EU stands behind the Good Friday Agreement and with Ireland in its negotiations, a no-deal Brexit would mean a hard border.
Schinas told reporters at Tuesday’s briefing: “If you’d like to push me and speculate on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it’s pretty obvious you will have a hard border.”
So in 24 hours, Ireland was on the wrong end of two negative pronouncements from the continent.
Even before Schinas had finished speaking, you could hear the panic in Dublin.
“It was certainly a ‘what was that’ moment,” said one senior Government source about the reaction in Government Buildings.
Within the hour, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe were out addressing the media, insisting the Irish position had not changed and a border on the island of Ireland was not being prepared for.
They were pounded by an increasingly sceptical media who felt there were echoes of 2010 in what was being said. By that, people were reminded by government denials that the IMF was on the way to bail out the country, four days before troika officials arrived in Dublin.
One seasoned reporter and commentator remarked that Coveney and Donohoe, in their denials, reminded him of Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey’s Laurel and Hardy routine nine years ago.
Later on Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar invited opposition leaders to a briefing in his office, during which he appeared to suggest Ireland could be isolated with Britain in a worst-case no-deal Brexit, with a customs hard border erected in Calais or Rotterdam instead of along the Irish border.
Varadkar told opposition party leaders of the “risk” that border checks could be operated in France or the Netherlands just hours after the commission had warned a hard border is the “obvious” consequence of a no-deal Brexit.
Varadkar and his department secretary general, John Callinan, said unless the Irish question is resolved, the EU could hypothetically move control of any border away from Ireland and onto the continent.
Such a scenario would remove the need for a hard border between the Republic and the North.
However, it would also mean Ireland and the UK would be treated as one bloc, several sources at the meeting told the Irish Examiner, which must be “avoided at all costs”. Callinan said technical EU rules could apply which require it to protect its outer reaches.
One source said: “The risk is restrictions could be imposed in Calais or Rotterdam as they [EU] would not trust us. It would be [like] if the UK was bringing in chlorinated chicken or the likes into Ireland.”
Things were looking bad — but matters calmed significantly yesterday.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, moved to assuage Irish concerns, saying a temporary safeguard to avoid erecting a physical border between Ireland and the North after Brexit would serve no purpose.
In an interview published in the newspapers Le Monde, Rzeczpospolita, and Luxemburger Wort, Barnier said the current backstop proposal over the border is the only option on the table.
“The question of limiting the backstop in time has already been discussed twice by European leaders. This is the only possible option because an insurance is of no use if it is time limited,” he said.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said the Government is not countenancing a border infrastructure on the island of Ireland, “in any shape or form”, in the context of Brexit preparations.
He said any reimposition of checks and border infrastructure would run the “high risk” of leading the country back into a situation where we would revisit the troubles.
But most importantly, Schinas took to the podium in Brussels and rowed back from his comments the day before.
He said: “The EU is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and to protect peace in Northern Ireland. The EU is fully behind Ireland and has expressed, on numerous occasions, full solidarity with Ireland. That has not changed.
“That is why the backstop, that is part of the withdrawal agreement, is of fundamental importance. It is why the withdrawal agreement is the best and only possible deal available and is not open for renegotiation.”
The feeling in Dublin is that Schinas misspoke as opposed to it being a significant shift in position from the EU.
Given the clarification, clearly the Irish diplomatic effort went into overdrive but a senior Government source said it was “not a red Batphone moment” but rather one handled by officials already on the ground in Brussels.
So it appeared the crisis had passed.
We are still left in the position that the Government is not officially preparing for the return of a hard border. The public is still left in the dark as to what will happen should the UK crash out of the EU.
The Government and the EU say that eventuality will be avoided. But the key question remains: How?