Dominic Raab’s hopes of sealing a deal with the EU within the month have faded after the Brexit secretary sparked another public spat over the Irish border issue.
Raab has set the ambitious target of getting the UK’s divorce arrangements signed-off by EU leaders by 21 November, which would require outstanding issues to be resolved this week.
Expectations were raised further on Sunday by reports that EU “concessions” on the Irish border backstop have paved the way for an imminent agreement.
But the mood turned sour on Monday when tensions over the Irish border broke into the open.
The Daily Telegraph reported that Raab had taken a “hardline” stance on the issue, insisting that the UK has the right to pull out of the EU’s Irish backstop after three months.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney hit back, accusing Raab of rowing back on the UK government’s commitment to a backstop “unless and until” a new free trade deal that eliminated the need for border checks kicks-in.
He said any time limit meant Raab’s proposal was “not a backstop at all” and “would never be agreed” by the EU.
The Irish position remains consistent and v clear that a “time-limited backstop” or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by IRE or EU. These ideas are not backstops at all + don’t deliver on previous UK commitments #Brexit pic.twitter.com/y7AQ8V1jMo
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) November 5, 2018
Sabine Weyand, the deputy of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, immediately backed-up his position in a tweet which suggested frustration over the UK’s position.
Still necessary to repeat this, it seems. https://t.co/fnZHvuPNp6
— Sabine Weyand (@WeyandSabine) November 5, 2018
France’s ambassador to Ireland branded Raab’s suggested of a time limited backstop an “oxymoron.”
Fully agree. A « time-limited backstop » is an oxymoron https://t.co/HAAA9jtDRU
— Stéphane Crouzat (@stephanecrouzat) November 5, 2018
In a sign that Raab is not out of step with the rest of the Cabinet, a spokesperson for the prime minister said: “We don’t want the backstop to be in place indefinitely and (we have said) that we would be looking to a mechanism to achieve that.”
Theresa May spoke to her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, about the idea of a “review mechanism” for the border backstop during a phone call on Monday morning.
Varadkar “indicated an openness to consider proposals for a review, provided that it was clear that the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop,” said a spokesperson for the Irish government.
There are no Brexit talks scheduled for Monday but the mechanism will be at the top of the agenda when Weyand and Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s Brexit adviser, meet in Brussels later this week.
The European Commission’s chief spokesperson said “technical works is ongoing” to find a solution to the backstop stand-off, but stressed: “We’re not there yet.”
Barnier is set to make a speech in Brussels on Monday evening but an EU source said: “There won’t be any Brexit news, because there isn’t any.”
If a breakthrough is made at a “technical level” between Weyand and Robbins, Raab will travel to Brussels to meet Barnier to see if the deal achieves a “political level” agreement.
That is not a formality – minutes of a meeting of the European parliament’s leadership confirm that Raab vetoed a suggested deal before last month’s European Council.
Even if agreement can be found, Barnier’s packed schedule this week leaves little time for him to sit down with Raab this week. The EU’s chief negotiator is in Slovakia on Tuesday and Finland on Wednesday and Thursday.
That means a meeting between Barnier and Raab is more likely to go ahead on Monday if there’s white smoke from the commission headquarters this week.
An emergency summit of EU leaders would then be called between November 21 and 25 to sign-off any deal before it goes to the UK and European parliaments.
Any deal should also be subject to a ‘People’s Vote’, more than 1,500 lawyers have said in an open letter to the prime minister which says it is the “most credible and democratic way to ensure the legitimacy of a decision that will profoundly impact generations to come”.