Monday 22 October 2018

Brexit talks: 'It's time to get down to business', Tusk and Varadkar warn British government

European Council president also branded Soviet Union remarks as "unwise" and "insulting"

European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar arrive before their meeting at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar arrive before their meeting at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

EUROPEAN Council president Donald Tusk and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have warned the British government it's "time to get down to business" on crucial Brexit talks.

Mr Tusk also hit out at the comparison made by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt comparing the EU to the Soviet Union, branding the remarks as "unwise" and "insulting".

And Mr Tusk reiterated that the "the EU is united behind Ireland" and he warned against "unacceptable remarks that raise the temperature and will achieve nothing except wasting more time".

The pair met today ahead of the crunch European Council meeting on Brexit later this month.

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is welcomed by European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier ahead of a meeting in Brussels, Belgium October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is welcomed by European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier ahead of a meeting in Brussels, Belgium October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Mr Tusk said he always tries to present the EU's position on Brexit "honestly and without beating about the bush" adding "telling truth even if difficult and unpleasant is the best way of showing respect for partners".

He said that's how it was at the recent meeting Salzburg where many British commentators believed Prime Minister Theresa May was humiliated as her Brexit proposals were rejected.

Mr Tusk said the EU is focused on "practical and realistic" ways of minimising the damage caused by Brexit on both sides.

He said the EU negotiators will defend the interests of the remaining 27 member states.

"We very much regret that the UK has decided to leave and we hope for the best relationship in future - but no one can expect that because of Brexit the EU will give up its fundamental values and key interests."

However, he added: "the EU wants a relationship with the UK that is as close and special as possible.

"From the very beginning the EU offer has been not just a Canada deal but a Canada-plus-plus-plus deal... much further reaching on trade, on intelligence, security and on foreign policy cooperation- this is a true measure of respect and this offer remains in place.

"The EU is serious about getting the best possible deal. Even though we haven't changed our minds that the consequences of Brexit will be negative for both sides."

However, Mr Tusk also criticised remarks made by British foreign secretary Mr Hunt who compared the EU to the Soviet Union at the Conservative Party Conference.

Mr Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, said this was "as unwise as it is insulting".

"The Soviet Union was about prisons and gulags, borders and walls, violence against citizens. The European Union is about freedom and human rights, prosperity and peace, life without fear. It is about democracy and pluralism, a continent without internal boarders and wars.

"As the President of the European Council and someone who spent half of my life in the Soviet Bloc I know what I'm talking about."

Mr Tusk said the "Soviet spirit" is still alive, pointing to the recent chemical attack in Salisbury, England which targeted former Kremlin agent Sergei Skripal which has been blamed on Russia.

Mr Tusk said the EU was the first to declare full solidarity with the UK after that attack and he said it was not a unique incident. He condemned a cyber attack on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons in the Hague which Mr Tusk said was "carried out by Kremlin intelligence services".

He said the issue of cyber security will be on the agenda of the next European Council.

Mr Tusk said the EU: "is united behind Ireland and the need to preserve the Northern Ireland peace process.

"Despite the UK government’s rejection of the EU’s original backstop proposal, we will not give up seeking a workable solution that fully respects the Good Friday Agreement as the integrity of the single market and the customs union."

He said there needs to be "maximum progress" by the European Council meeting later this month.

And he said that now the Conservative Party conference is over "we should get down to business".

Mr Varadkar thanked the EU institutions for the ongoing solidarity being shown to Ireland.

He said the Brexit talks are entering "a critical and an ultimate phase".

He said Ireland's objectives remain the same, to minimise the damage caused by Brexit by protecting the Common Travel Area with the UK, avoiding a hard border, protecting the rights of Irish and EU citizens in the North and ensuring as close a trading relationships possible.

He said: "I want to very much agree with President Tusk in his call for us to get down to business. I’m very keen to see an agreement concluded by November, if at all possible. 

"I think that’s in the interest of Ireland, the European Union and the UK."

Mr Varadkar will also meet the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the Chair of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group (BSG), Guy Verhofstadt.

Mr Verhofstadt's group today released a statement calling for an intensification of Brexit talks in the wake of the speech given by Mrs May at the Conservative Party Conference.

In the speech she ruled out a second Brexit referendum and insisted a free trade deal with the EU was the solution to avoiding a hard border.

The BSG statement said:

"Now that the Conference is over, it is imperative, given the very short deadlines, that negotiations intensify in order to finalise the Withdrawal Agreement including a legally binding, workable and operational backstop for the Ireland/Northern Ireland border in line with the Joint Report of last December.

"Without such a backstop, the European Parliament would not be in a position to give its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement."

The BSG reiterated its support for Mr Barnier's negotiating strategy.

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