EU ready for more Brexit talks but UK needs new backstop plan says Simon Coveney

Simon Coveney says the British must come up with credible alternative to the backstop. Picture by Colm Leneghan/Pacemaker Press
David Young

THE EU has no problem creating time for further Brexit talks but the UK must present a credible alternative to the backstop at those negotiations, tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney, who is also the Republic's Foreign Affairs minister insisted the EU would negotiate five days a week if need-be.

On a visit to Helsinki, he made clear the bloc would only accept changes to the Withdrawal Agreement if the UK presents a workable alternative to the Irish backstop - something he said is yet to materialise.

Mr Coveney said it would not "fly" for the UK to ask the EU to accept the removal of the backstop on the promise of an alternative that had not emerged.

"I don't think there's any problem from a European Union perspective in terms of making time available for negotiations," he said.

"We all want to try to resolve these issues, we want to find a way of getting a deal that the UK are happy with and that the EU is happy with and can accept too. There is no country that wants a deal more than Ireland.

"We want to get a deal that manages a sensible Brexit, that moves us into a transition period that gives us time and space to work out a future relationship.

"But that deal has to be based on the Withdrawal Agreement and it has to be consistent with that, and if the UK wants to remove an element of the Withdrawal Agreement they have to acknowledge that that causes problems and they have to propose alternatives that can solve those problems, certainly in the case of the backstop."

On Boris Johnson's suggestion of negotiations for two days a week, Mr Coveney said: "I'm sure if he wanted five days of negotiations a week, the EU would be okay with that.

"Michel Barnier is there as the chief negotiator for that purpose, he has a team that's ready to go.

"We all want to get a deal but at the moment nothing credible has come from the British Government in the context of an alternative to the backstop.

"If that changes, great. We'll look at it in Dublin but more importantly it can be the basis of a discussion in Brussels, but it's got to be credible.

"It can't simply be this notion that 'look we must have the backstop removed and we'll solve this problem in the future negotiation, without any credible way of doing that'. That's not going to fly and I think it's important that we are all honest about that.

"We have always said if there are alternatives to the backstop that do the same job, then let's hear them and if we can work out a deal on that basis, so be it.

"But what we will not do in Ireland, and I believe there is strong solidarity across the EU on this, we will not allow a really important element of the Withdrawal Agreement to be removed - i.e. the backstop, which solves a difficult problem, albeit on a temporary basis - and for that to be replaced with something that doesn't stand up to scrutiny and is simply a promise that we'll do our best to solve the problem, but not explain how.

"That is not an approach that either Ireland or the EU will support."

Meanwhile Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey has called on parliamentarians to pull together "to negotiate an alternative to the backstop".

The former UUP leader said as MPs prepared to return to Westminster on Tuesday "one thing is abundantly clear - both Government and Parliament are failing the people of Northern Ireland".

He said that parties now need to "be making every effort to negotiate an alternative to the backstop, so an agreement can pass through Parliament. Northern Ireland needs a viable agreement more than any other region of the United Kingdom, yet, with a few honourable exceptions, few politicians seem to be focused on achieving this."

Saying there were "inconsistencies on all sides" he urged politicians to "rise above the political scrum that is forecast and renew efforts to get a deal so we can depart the EU in an orderly way."

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