Friday 18 October 2019

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar can 'see a pathway to a possible deal' following Brexit talks in Merseyside

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor. Photo: @leovaradkar twitter
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor. Photo: @leovaradkar twitter
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Boris Johnson can "see a pathway" to a Brexit deal following nearly three hours of intense talks on Merseyside today.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson have raised fresh hopes of a possible deal before next week's crucial European Council summit in a joint statement that was issued following the lengthy meeting at Thornton Manor, near Liverpool.

The talks lasted much longer than expected and, the statement said, focused on the "challenges of customs and consent".

In a signal that progress may have been made towards reaching a deal the joint statement said the two leaders "agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal".

Irish and UK officials are now to engage intensively on the matters discussed today and Mr Varadkar will report to the EU's Brexit negotiating team on his private meeting with Mr Johnson.

The joint statement reads: "The Prime Minister and Taoiseach have had a detailed and constructive discussion. Both continue to believe that a deal is in everybody's interest. They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.

"Their discussion concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent. They also discussed the potential to strengthen bilateral relations, including on Northern Ireland.

"They agreed to reflect further on their discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

"Following their discussions the Taoiseach will consult with the Taskforce 50 and the Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet Michel Barnier tomorrow morning."

The meeting comes with just 21 days to the October 31 Brexit deadline and ahead of the EU summit in Brussels next Thursday and Friday.

Mr Johnson arrived in a large convoy at the National Trust property at 11.44am with the Taoiseach arriving around 22 minutes later after he flew into Liverpool's John Lennon Airport this morning.

The location for the meeting had been a closely-guarded secret after it was announced last evening that the two leaders would meet in the north west of England.

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor. Photo: @leovaradkar twitter
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor. Photo: @leovaradkar twitter

It is located around 25 minutes' drive from Liverpool city centre.

The Irish government said the meeting's location was being kept secret at the request of 10 Downing Street.

UK Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng has said Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar remain "seriously focused" on trying to get a deal.

Mr Kwarteng told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that a "good chance" to get a deal remains.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

"I think that we want a spirited compromise. We want to be able to make sure that the backstop has been taken away," he said.

He later added: "The reason the Prime Minister is meeting Leo Varadkar isn't simply to have a social conversation, they are seriously focused on trying to resolve this issue and trying to get a deal on which basis we can leave the EU."

Jeremy Corbyn said the British Prime Minister's recent "behaviour and language" indicated he was "not going" to strike a Brexit deal with the European Union.

Answering questions after his speech in Northampton, the Labour leader said: "We are in for a few days of shadow boxing by Boris Johnson and a decision will hopefully come back to Parliament next week after the EU summit.

"At the moment his behaviour and language he's used suggests he's not going to reach an agreement with the European Union.

"Our absolute priority, and that's why I've been talking to other opposition parties, is to make sure that no-deal is taken off the table and an extension of membership is attained which is required in the EU Number Two Act, otherwise known as the Benn Act."

The Taoiseach acknowledged ahead of the discussion that it will be "very difficult" to secure a deal by next week.

Mr Johnson wants to keep Northern Ireland more closely aligned with the EU than the rest of the UK on rules on goods and agriculture but remove it from the current customs union.

But Varadkar is opposed to the Republic being in a different customs union from the north.

On Wednesday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there was still no basis for a fresh agreement on the UK's withdrawal from the the bloc.

He said they had yet to see any "operational, legally binding solution" to the issue of the backstop ahead of next week's European Council meeting.

Mr Johnson's "two borders" proposals, he said, were based on a system "that hasn't been properly developed, that hasn't been tested".

The downbeat assessment from Mr Barnier was echoed by the Taoiseach, who said the British PM was installing an obstacle to progress by insisting that Northern Ireland must leave the customs union with the rest of the UK.

"That's their position at the moment and that's one that is a great difficulty for us," Mr Varadkar told the Dail.

"As far as the Irish Government is concerned, we do want a deal, we're willing to work hard to get a deal, to work until the last moment to get a deal, but certainly not at any cost."

Mr Johnson must bring back a deal before October 19 if he is to avoid a clash over the Benn Act, which aims to prevent a no-deal departure.

The legislation orders the PM to ask for a delay to Article 50 until the end of January if MPs do not approve a deal before that date.

But he has repeatedly said he will not ask for a delay, while insisting that he will abide by the law.

On Thursday, Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng said Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar remain "seriously focused" on trying to get a deal, and he believes a "good chance" of securing one remains.

But former chancellor Philip Hammond told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the PM's proposal "is not going to fly, was never going to fly".

Mr Hammond, who was among the 21 Tory rebels expelled by the PM, also ruled out granting Mr Johnson's wish by voting for an early general election.

"I don't think an election solves our problem here," he added.

Mr Johnson is planning an emergency Saturday sitting of Parliament following the summit, to be held on October 19, according to Government sources.

It is thought the PM could use the occasion to force a showdown with MPs determined to block a no-deal Brexit.

With additional reporting from PA

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