Daniel McConnell: Coveney dismayed at UK’s approach to Brexit talks

Last Thursday in Brussels talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom on a proposed post-Brexit trade deal ended abruptly.
Daniel McConnell: Coveney dismayed at UK’s approach to Brexit talks
An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parliament, in central London.
An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parliament, in central London.

Last Thursday in Brussels talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom on a proposed post-Brexit trade deal ended abruptly.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, complained bitterly of a lack of respect and engagement by the British government.

The two sides ended the week’s talks – the first held in person since February – a day ahead of the jointly agreed schedule amid evident frustration at the lack of progress.

Both Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Frost, confirmed that “serious” disagreements remain.

“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement,” Barnier said in a statement.

“However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain.”

This is an increasingly worrying situation for Ireland and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, returned to his position in the new government, is to bring new readiness plans to government in the coming days in case a trade deal is not reached in time.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Coveney gives a sobering assessment of the British attitude to talks and the “difficult place” such a stance has placed the talks.

“Where are we in relation to getting a future relationship and a trade deal? The honest answer to that is, we are in a difficult place. There have been five rounds of negotiations and very, very little progress has been made,” he says.

He makes clear it's been a frustrating process.

“Both sides have agreed to intensify negotiations this week into next week, and I suspect through the month of July. Michel Barnier and his team will be in London next week and while both negotiating teams have been quite tight-lipped about the negotiations in the week just past, Michel Barnier has made it pretty clear that there hasn't been much progress,” he adds.

Mr Coveney puts the blame for a lack of progress at the door of Boris Johnson, the British prime minister and his team, who he accuses of walking away of commitments made less than six months ago when the withdrawal agreement was finalised alongside the political declaration as to who talks would proceed.

“It's difficult for the two sides to get an agreement when both are looking for completely different outcomes. And the biggest problem here is that the UK is simply not adhering to the approach that was agreed by both sides only six months ago in the political declaration that was signed off at the same time as the withdrawal agreements.

“Until the British side actually approaches the negotiation in a way that's consistent with what they committed to doing at the start of this negotiation when the when the political declaration was signed, it's hard to see how we make progress.

“The main problem here is that the approach of both sides is entirely different than what the UK seems to be looking for is sectoral deals in areas where Britain has an interest.

"So, the financial services sector, getting a trade deal that avoids tariffs and quotas. But what the EU is insisting on is that there'll be a package of things that are all agreed and prioritised and at the same time. Because if you don't have a level playing field - it is not fair competition between businesses in the EU single market and in the UK - well then you cannot have contact barrier-free trade between the two,” he said.

So where does all of this leave Ireland? His response is stark.

“Time is running out yeah that's true. But there's still six months before the end of the year. Six months a very, very short period of time in terms of getting a trade deal place. There are 11 different areas where there are negotiations taking place, all in parallel with each other. The idea we can get agreement on all 11 is totally unrealistic,” he says candidly.

“What is possible, though, is a basic trade deal that avoids the introduction of tariffs and quotas, which is very important in an Irish perspective, which is what WTO trading rules would probably result in if there was no deal."

As a result, Mr Coveney reveals he is bringing to the new Cabinet a significant memo next week, both in terms of scale and importance, as to make Ireland ready for all possible scenarios, including the worst case one of where a deal is not reached.

“I'll bring a fairly big memo to government in relation to where Ireland is at in terms of our preparedness for whatever outcome may happen in the autumn.

“Whether it's a worst-case scenario - which is no trade deal Brexit - or not, we have to be ready just in case or other variants of that,” he adds.

But he warns that no matter what happens here there's going to be change.

“And no matter what happens here we're going to require customs checks in Irish ports and in our airports, and we're going to have to have other checks as well on live animals, and on standards checks and so on goods coming from the UK."

He points to the €30 million already spent at Dublin Port making it Brexit ready, the investment in Rosslare and also Dublin Airport, but said businesses must be prepared for whatever happens.

Mr Coveney, despite all the challenges, is still confident a deal can be reached.

“I think we can get a trade deal that avoids tariffs and quotas. But in order for that to happen, there needs to be an agreement around the level playing field issue.

“I am hopeful that there will be a deal. But I would be naive to say that they that a no-trade deal isn't possible.

“It's possible, but I think it would be such an act of self-harm and such a failure of politics that I believe, politicians and governments will find a way of getting a deal. Maybe not until late October.

"Hopefully, we can do it over the summer. But we'll do everything we can to support Irish business interests, to protect our place in the single market, and also protect our really close and important relationship with the UK,” he concludes.

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