Brexit: Ireland’s foreign minister accuses UK of ‘perverse nationalism’ over US trade approach

Simon Coveney suggests UK, US, Canada and EU should pursue joint deal

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 14 March 2021 08:54

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Ireland’s foreign minister has accused the UK of “perverse nationalism” and “narrow-minded thinking” in attempting to race ahead of the EU to reach a trade deal with Washington alone.

Calling for a more collaborative effort, Simon Coveney said that rather than “competing for attention” in Joe Biden’s administration, Britain, the EU, the US and Canada should work together to come to a joint agreement.

In an interview with The Times, however, he also reiterated concerns about trust in the UK as a negotiating partner being weakened after the unilateral decision to extend the so-called “grace period” in the Northern Ireland protocol.

But addressing the prospect of a US trade deal – something desired by Brexiteers who argued for an independent trading policy – Mr Coveney claimed there was “enough division and competition globally rather than creating more locally”.

“Rather than the EU and UK competing for attention in Washington, looking to be the first to do a trade deal, it makes sense for UK, EU and US and Canada to do one together,” he said.

“The idea that Britain can get there first is narrow-minded thinking, frankly. It’s a perverse nationalism when actually Britain and the EU should work together as partners.”

When pressed on his remark in a separate interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Coveney appeared to soften his language, saying: “I was asked a question about a transatlantic trade deal and I said I don’t think it makes any sense for some in the UK to see this as a race to see who can get a trade deal with the US first.

He added: “We should be looking at a transatlantic trade deal that involves the EU, the UK, the US and Canada and others if they want to be involved. 

“We all run economies that are based on very similar rules and structures and in my view a transatlantic relationship involving Britain should be a powerful one economically and globally.”

His call for a joint trade deal is unlikely to be accepted by No 10, as Mr Johnson has often touted a transatlantic trade agreement between the UK and the US as a benefit of leaving the bloc and has previously said it will “reflect the unique closeness of our two great nations”.

Speaking after a damaging row between the EU and the UK over the Northern Ireland protocol, Mr Coveney also told The Times: “It has reinforced an awful lot of the doubts in Brussels about whether or not this really is a British government we can rely on to be a trusted partner when it comes to implementing what has already been agreed.”

Earlier this week, Brussels indicated it was ready to initiate legal action against the UK government over the decision to unilaterally extend the grace period for fully implementing the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement. 

The grace period – a temporary relaxation of checks for supermarkets and suppliers – was put in place to allow firms time to adapt to new trade barriers across the Irish Sea and was due to expire at the end of March.

Speaking on Friday, Boris Johnson told a virtual press conference on a visit to Northern Ireland that the protocol needed to be “corrected”.

“You can’t have a situation in which soil or parcels or tractors with mud on their tyres or whatever are prevented from moving easily from one part of the UK to another — it’s all one United Kingdom,” he said.

The prime minister added: “What I didn’t want to see was loads of checks on stuff going from GB to NI in such a way as to interrupt trade and to confuse and irritate people.”

“I didn’t want to see barriers to the circulation of sausages and tractors with mud on their tyres and all the rest of it, and nor did I think that would be necessary and I think that’s why we put in the easements we have, because I think it’s sensible for there to be some balance in this and I think there’s a commonsensical way forward and that’s what we want to have.” 

In a separate interview, the cabinet minister Brandon Lewis admitted a tweet posted by the government’s Northern Ireland Office claiming there “will be no border” in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit had not stood the test of time.

He told the News Letter newspaper: “That tweet has not stood the test of time very well and you’ve got to try to learn from those experience; you’ve got to fall down a bit to know how to get back up... I’ll make sure that I’m bearing those issues in mind when I tweet in the future.”

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