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Coveney warns Boris Johnson over his ability to seal EU trade deal

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
EU Commission president Ursula van der Leyen

By Kevin Doyle

It will be seen as a "massive failure" for Boris Johnson's leadership if he cannot secure a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020, Tanaiste Simon Coveney has said.

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The Prime Minister's Brexit Bill comfortably cleared the Commons last week, and will head to the House of Lords this week for consideration.

The focus will shift in the coming weeks to what Irish negotiators believe will be an even more difficult phase of Brexit.

The two sides must come to arrangements on their future relationship in string of complex areas including fisheries, data and aviation.

"I think it's going to be really difficult to get it all done in 11 months but that's what we move into from the first of February," Mr Coveney said.

The Tanaiste revealed he wants to continue as Foreign Affairs Minister after the next election if Fine Gael is still in power.

He notes that "in many ways" the past two years have seen him become "the Brexit Minister, as opposed to the Foreign Minister".

"And so there's a lot I'd like to do in the Foreign Affairs brief and in Northern Ireland if given the opportunity."

Mr Coveney recalled a "long discussion" he had with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after losing the Fine Gael leadership contest in 2017. "First of all we agreed to avoid a split in the party which often happens after the leadership contest. And, you know, he effectively asked me what did I want to focus on. He recognised that after a leadership contest like that a change in portfolio made sense," he said.

"I could see that Brexit was going to become a huge issue. I didn't realise it was going to become quite as big a negotiation as it turned out to be. But certainly it excited me. I saw huge risks to the country." He said he wants to continue working on Brexit and even with the Stormont Assembly back at work there will be "unfinished business".

The new EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen is to be welcomed to Dublin on Wednesday with a state reception. In recent days she cautioned that striking a comprehensive EU-UK trade deal before the end of the year is "impossible" without serious compromises.

Already EU leaders are wary that the Republic will find itself at a cliff-edge situation in the run-up to next Christmas, although Mr Coveney does not believe that the UK will crash out.

The alternative to a comprehensive deal is that the EU and UK interact based on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules which would be a major blow to the Irish economy.

"I think it's very unlikely by the way to happen because I think the UK needs a trade deal," Mr Coveney said.

"The EU would certainly like to have a trade deal but I think the consequences to the UK of not getting a trade deal with the EU would be very severely felt in the UK, and in Ireland for that matter, but particularly in the UK.

"And I think a new Prime Minister with a big majority is going to want to get a deal done here, rather than be responsible for no structured trading arrangements, and having to fall back to WTO rules I think that would be seen as a massive failure for Boris Johnson," he said.

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