EU and government set to square up over Ireland

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney speaks to the media on College Green in Westminster, Lo

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney speaks to the media on College Green in Westminster, London - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The European Union could throw out Theresa May's plans for a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Ireland's foreign minister has said.

The Prime Minister has committed to leaving the EU customs union which guarantees tariff-free trade, but insists a hard border can be avoided through technological solutions and placing no new restrictions on the 80% of cross-frontier trade carried out by smaller businesses.

But Irish Tanaiste Simon Coveney told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show he was 'not sure that the European Union will be able to support' the plan, as it would be worried about protecting the integrity of the single market.

'While of course we will explore and look at all of the proposed British solutions, they are essentially a starting point in negotiations as opposed to an end point,' he said.

Coveney said if agreement cannot be reached during tri-partite talks between the UK, Ireland and the European Commission, the backstop plan of full British alignment with customs union and single market rules that May 'committed clearly' to in December would have to be put in place.

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In a major speech last week May rejected 'unacceptable' EU proposals to retain customs union arrangements in Northern Ireland, but accepted the UK's 'responsibility' to help maintain a soft border with the Republic – spelling out in detail how she believed this could be achieved by technological means or through a broader trade agreement.

But Coveney said: 'This isn't a question of either side wanting to put up borders, but if you have to protect a functioning single market, just the same way Britain wants to protect its own single market, well then you have to understand that if goods move from one customs union to another then there needs to be some checks unless there is some mechanism that is negotiated and put in place that prevents that.'

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May said she was pleased that Irish PM Leo Varadkar had agreed to form the three-way talks to look at her proposals.

And she declined to defend Boris Johnson's comparison of the border to crossing between London congestion zones in Camden and Islington, but insisted both of them are 'absolutely clear' that there will not be a hard border.

'We've got proposals as to how we're going to achieve that, now we're going to be able to sit down and talk with others about how we're going to do that,' May told Marr.

It comes after Downing Street and Johnson denied reports that May's chief of staff Gavin Barwell was behind a leak of a memo from the Foreign Secretary in which he said the Government should focus on stopping the Irish border becoming 'significantly' harder, reigniting a row over the issue.

Meanwhile, Labour former cabinet minister Lord Mandelson dismissed May's Brexit plan.

He told Marr: 'What Theresa May is doing is trying to dance on the head of a pin that simply doesn't exist.'

He added: 'It will be painful for the country as a result.'

In a recorded interview with the Marr Show May sidestepped a question over whether a Commons vote on the customs union would amount to a motion of confidence.

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