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Dublin sees hand of British in Polish hint over Brexit backstop

Frustration: Simon Coveney
Frustration: Simon Coveney

By Kevin Doyle

Poland's Foreign Minister was lined up to give Theresa May a boost before she presented her non-existent 'Plan B' for Brexit, Irish officials believe.

The first sign of cracks in the European Union's solidarity with the Republic have emerged, with the Polish minister proposing the idea of a five-year time limit on the backstop.

Jacek Czaputowicz said the UK and Ireland were playing a "game of chicken" over the border that would end with a "frontal collision" unless a compromise was made.

The move caused deep frustration in Dublin, which has always boasted of the unified support enjoyed from EU member states.

Sources suggested the Polish move may have been co-ordinated with London in order to give Mrs May some political cover ahead of her appearance in the House of Commons yesterday.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney attended a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers yesterday, but Mr Czaputowicz chose not to pre-warn him about his interview in a Polish newspaper.

Mr Czaputowicz said a temporary backstop, like the one being sought in the UK, would be better for the Republic than a no-deal, which would inevitably result in a hard border.

"In December I talked about it in London and Dublin with my counterparts Jeremy Hunt and Simon Coveney. If Ireland appealed to the EU to change the agreement on the backstop in the agreement with the British so that it would apply temporarily, let's say five years, the matter would be solved," he said.

"Of course, this would be less beneficial for Ireland than an indefinite backstop, but much more favourable than the non-contractual Brexit, which inevitably approaches."

Warsaw is one of the UK's closest allies within the EU and has repeatedly spoken out in support of May and her Brexit proposals - although has always been slapped down.

Last September, at the General Affairs Council, Poland's Europe Minister raised the risk of the Republic causing a no-deal but was swiftly countered by heavyweight core countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Mr Coveney told reporters in Brussels yesterday "putting a time limit on an insurance mechanism effectively means it's not a backstop at all".

His comments were quickly backed up by Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who said: "I am completely with my Irish colleague. He has already said what he thinks of it, which is nothing."

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier also insisted that amending the backstop is no longer an option on the table.

"The withdrawal agreement with all its dimensions, including the backstop, is the best deal possible," Mr Barnier said. "It is now for the UK leaders to build a stable and positive majority for a deal. We are waiting for the next steps from the UK Government, but we are ready to work again on the political declaration."

Irish sources last night sought to play down the significance of Poland's intervention, suggesting that it may have been a "set-up" between London and Warsaw.

Mrs May was subsequently asked about the comments in the Commons. She said: "I look forward to exploring in more detail the proposals that have been put forward by the Polish Foreign Minister on this particular issue of dealing with the backstop."

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