PM ready to talk to EU leaders about border backstop alternatives – Gove
The Prime Minister stands ready to engage with any EU leader about alternatives to the Irish border backstop, Michael Gove has said.
On a visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Gove was asked why Boris Johnson had not taken up Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s invite to Dublin to discuss the Brexit impasse.
On Friday, Mr Gove, the Cabinet minister responsible for no-deal planning, heard about the potential Brexit challenges facing businesses as he toured Warrenpoint Port in Co Down, which sits beside the Irish border.
Brussels and London remain at loggerheads over the prospect of fresh Brexit negotiations.
The UK Government has said any new negotiations must focus on developing an alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement.
EU leaders insist the deal cannot be reopened but will engage on potential amendments to the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the bloc.
Earlier this week, Mr Varadkar said the invite remained open for Mr Johnson to join him in Dublin for talks on Brexit and other issues with “no preconditions”.
On Friday, Mr Gove insisted his government’s links with counterparts in Ireland remain “very good”, despite the Prime Minister’s decision not to as yet take up the invitation.
“I think the Prime Minister has talked to the Taoiseach and there are links at every level between the UK Government and the government in the Irish Republic,” he said.
“We have very good bilateral relations and of course we are also talking to other EU partners as well.
“In the event of a no-deal then naturally there will be issues to be addressed, not just security but trade issues as well.
“We will make sure that we safeguard the security of the people on the island of Ireland and we will also make sure that trade continues to flow as freely as possible.”
He later added: “The Prime Minister is keen to explore with European Union leaders how we can ensure we can have a withdrawal agreement that will pass Parliament.
“He’s talked to leaders across the EU and he stands ready during the course of the next couple of months to speak to any EU leader and pursue with as much energy and openness as possible what alternative arrangements might be which would ensure we can secure an orderly and timely withdrawal from the EU.”
The contentious border backstop is an insurance policy written into the withdrawal treaty that will ensure, come what may in future trade talks, that the Irish border will remain free-flowing post-Brexit.
It would see the UK, as a whole, enter into a customs union with the EU for an indefinite period and also see Northern Ireland adhere to EU single market rules on goods.
Asked if the Government could envisage a compromise, where a variation of the backstop could be retained if changes were made – such as the introduction of a time limit – Mr Gove said he would not “pre-empt” negotiations with the EU.
“We stand ready to work with the Irish Government, or EU partners and the (European) Commission in order to attempt to resolve these problems,” he said.
Mr Gove said in the event of a no-deal, the Government would want to see a “continuity approach” to the way goods were transported across the Irish border, reiterating the Government’s “cast iron commitment” not to have a hard border or infrastructure at the border.
Asked how much the Government would spend preparing for a no-deal, Mr Gove replied: “Whatever it takes.”
During his visit to the port, Mr Gove was also asked to respond to the Taoiseach’s contention that a no-deal Brexit will not enable the UK to leapfrog unresolved issues to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU.
Mr Varadkar said in the wake of a no-deal, talks on a future trading relationship would still not begin until matters in the current withdrawal agreement – such as citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border – were resolved.
“I think the Taoiseach is understandably making clear what he believes is in the interests not just of the Irish government, people on the island of Ireland, the European Union and in the UK as well,” said Mr Gove.
“We have good bilateral relations with the Irish Government and good multilateral relations with other EU heads of government and we are going to carry on talking.
“One of the things I am here to do is make sure I develop an even deeper understanding, issue by issue, of all the things we need to do in order to safeguard trade, jobs and prosperity across the island of Ireland and within the United Kingdom.”
Asked about the prospects of a general election in the autumn, Mr Gove said he did not want a poll.
“We will have Brexit on October 31 – the Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that is the position in law that we have to leave the European Union and that is the date that has been agreed between the EU 27 and the UK,” he said.
“I don’t want a general election because I believe it is important that we get on with delivering Brexit and also ensure that the other opportunities that the Prime Minister has made clear that he wants the United Kingdom to enjoy can be provided.”
Mr Gove was also asked about reports that tens of thousands of dairy cattle would have to be culled in Northern Ireland in a no-deal scenario, due to the disruption to the cross-border processing chain.
He highlighted that the Ulster Farmers Union had dismissed the reports.
Mr Gove added: “As Defra Secretary I am on the record in the House of Commons and elsewhere having acknowledged that there are particular sectors of agriculture that face particular challenges in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“One of my jobs is to ensure that we can help agriculture and the food and drink sector whatever the circumstances after October 31.”