Germany 'in solidarity' with Ireland over backstop to avoid hard border
Germany has said it stands in “full solidarity” with Ireland over the Irish backstop, saying a hard border would be unacceptable to the EU.
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was speaking as Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, said MPs who were planning to vote against Theresa May’s deal needed to stop their “wishful thinking” that the EU would reopen Brexit negotiations.
“Some people call us stubborn, but the truth is avoiding a hard border in Ireland is a fundamental concern for the EU, a union that more than anything else serves one purpose – to build and maintain peace in Europe,” said Maas.
In a significant intervention, he urged British MPs to “act responsibly” and not allow the UK to crash out to a disastrous no deal.
“Walls and borders can threaten peace. We believe in the peace-making powers of the European Union,” said Maas, adding that the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland was “living proof of this principle”.
“During the Brexit negotiations, all 27 member states agreed on a common position and stood by it. This unity includes full solidarity with Ireland. We insisted, and still do: a hard border dividing the Irish island is unacceptable.
“Brexit is less than three months away and the final outcome is up in the air. Even a no-deal scenario is still an option despite the serious damage this would cause on both sides.
“There’s too much at stake to take this lightly. We urge our British friends to act responsibly,” said Maas in a speech to Irish ambassadors in Dublin on Tuesday.
Addressing the same gathering, Coveney said: “These are fateful days and weeks in British politics. I remain convinced that there is a majority in the UK parliament which will do all it can to avert a disastrous crash-out Brexit.
“The time for wishful thinking is over. There is no alternative 585-page agreement waiting to be dusted off,” he said. “And it is also wishful thinking to ignore the default outcome if nothing else is agreed – that default is a crash-out.”
He said it was time for MPs to be realistic and to stop holding on to the notion, expressed by the former Brexit secretary David Davis on the BBC on Tuesday morning, that the EU was playing negotiating games.
“Surely now is the time in Westminster for everyone – in government and in opposition – to cast aside unrealistic options based on promises that simply cannot be delivered,” Coveney said.
In an indirect appeal to the 100 or so MPs who are expected to vote against May’s deal next week, he said reality needed to take hold in Westminster.
“If that doesn’t happen quickly, in the absence of that realism, it is the hardliners who think no price is too high to pay for their version of Brexit who will win out to everyone’s cost, including Ireland’s.”
Speaking later at a press conference, Coveney said Ireland would not block any British request to delay leaving the EU by extending the article 50 process.
“If it is the case that at some point in the future that the British government seeks an extension of article 50, then that is something that will have to get consideration at an EU level. But certainly from an Irish perspective, if such an ask happens, we won’t be standing in the way on that.”
Maas was vaguer, saying it was premature to discuss any extension request before next week’s Westminster vote.
The German diplomat echoed Coveney’s warning that all sides would pay a price if “playing for time” led to a no-deal outcome.
The two speeches came after the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said the EU did not want to “trap” Britain and was working hard on written assurances to help May get the withdrawal agreement ratified in Westminster next week.
Coveney also appealed to the DUP and Sinn Féin to get Northern Ireland’s devolved government back up and running quickly. “With a UK decision to leave the EU about to cause unprecedented dislocation – there is simply no excuse for the parties in Northern Ireland not to find a way to work together.”
Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that fresh written assurances from the EU to address his concerns over the Irish border element of the deal would not be enough as they would not be “legally binding”.
The assurances are expected to include a pledge that a trade deal could be signed off by 2021, thereby obviating the need for a backstop if the transition period was extended for one year.
Davis expressed confidence that the EU would make a U-turn, was merely “testing the mettle” of the UK and predicted the EU would reopen negotiations.
Coveney said on Tuesday morning this was impossible. “The European council provided reassurances about the backstop in December and we are ready to provide additional clarifications if these are helpful,” he said
“However, we cannot reopen the withdrawal agreement text itself, which was the product of multiple compromises and highly detailed negotiations in a very wide range of areas.”
Varadkar said EU leaders did not wish to trap Britain in the backstop indefinitely and had already made that clear.