HELSINKI (Reuters) - Ireland accused Britain of being “totally unreasonable” over Brexit on Friday, saying London had not made credible proposals to replace the Irish border backstop. But the British government insisted it had offered ways of solving the key sticking point.
More than three years after the country voted in a referendum to leave the bloc, Britain is heading towards a showdown with the European Union over its plans to leave the bloc, which is due to take place in just over two months time.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s team had not offered any concrete alternatives to the existing planned ‘backstop’, which the EU wants to ensure an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“Boris Johnson is outlining a very clear and firm position but it is a totally unreasonable position that the EU cannot facilitate and he must know that,” Coveney said in an interview with Ireland’s Newstalk radio.
In separate remarks to reporters on arriving in Helsinki for talks with his EU peers, Coveney said: “We all want to get a deal but, at the moment, nothing credible has come from the UK government in terms of alternatives to the backstop,”
“If there are alternatives to the backstop that do the same job, well then let’s hear them. And if we can work out a deal on that basis, so be it. But it’s got to be credible,” Coveney said.
Asked about Coveney’s remarks, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted Britain had made alternative proposals to replace the backstop, and it was wrong of Ireland and other EU countries to suggest otherwise.
“It’s just not true,” he said. “We are putting forward alternatives,” he said.
Johnson says he must have the backstop removed to convince the UK parliament to ratify the deal. The EU has said it is willing to listen to London’s ideas.
The existing backstop would require Northern Ireland - and possibly the whole United Kingdom - to continue to follow many EU rules if future trade talks break down, in order to avoid customs checks on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.
Britain has said technological alternatives to border checks should be possible by the time the backstop might be needed, but has given no details, prompting scepticism from the EU.
Coveney described such alternatives — sometimes referred to by the British government — as “vague”, and said every time Dublin asked for more detail “the answer isn’t convincing. In fact sometimes you don’t get an answer at all.”
London said on Friday British and EU negotiators will hold twice-weekly talks next month to rework the so-called Withdrawal Agreement, which the UK parliament has repeatedly rejected due mainly to opposition to the backstop.
Coveney’s Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg colleagues expressed concern over the threat of a no-deal Brexit after Johnson’s government moved to suspend the UK parliament, a move that outraged opposition lawmakers and many others in Britain.
“I am worried because for me it is a catastrophe for each and for everyone and it is a shame for the thousands and thousands of workers and create a lot of misery inevitably,” said Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn.
EU leaders are due to meet for a summit in Brussels on Oct. 17-18, just a fortnight before Britain’s current leave date. But Brexit watchers in the EU’s political hub Brussels already expect another emergency summit might be needed in late October to avoid the worst-case scenario.
Arriving at the same gathering in Helsinki, British foreign minister Dominic Raab said that accusations that his manoeuvre was a constitutional outrage were “nonsense”.
Ahead of his meeting with Raab, Dutch Foreign Minister Steph Blok said: “I’m very anxious to learn from my colleague of what their proposals to avoid no-deal Brexit would be.”
“We would very much like to avoid a no-deal Brexit, it would be very bad for the UK but also for Europe and the Netherlands.... The main issue is how to deal with Irish border and you can’t solve that without details,” he said.
“The Withdrawal Agreement stands as it is.”
Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee and Jorrit Donner-Wittkopf Brussels, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Hugh Lawson, William Maclean