Friday 22 February 2019

Brexit: UK won't be allowed the best of both worlds, says Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

The UK has been warned it cannot expect a Brexit fallback position where it undercuts Irish wages and regulations while retaining access to the EU markets.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that a "best of both worlds" scenario - favoured by some in the UK as a means of avoiding a hard Border in Ireland - would be a concern.

His remarks came as he heaped pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May to deliver proposals for keeping the Irish Border open, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Varadkar was speaking after meetings with European Council President Donald Tusk and the EU Commission's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, in Brussels.

The Taoiseach said his Government wants to see the UK government's proposals for the so-called 'backstop' to avoid a hard Border "well in advance" of a crunch EU summit in less than a fortnight.

He was asked about speculation that the British government will seek a UK-wide customs backstop, which would alleviate concerns of Unionists opposed to any arrangement that could be seen as border controls on the Irish Sea.

Mr Varadkar said the Irish Government hasn't seen such proposals yet - but would be open to suggestions that avoid a hard Border and minimise barriers to trade.

But he also warned there would be "constraints" to such a plan as EU members would take the view that a UK-wide arrangement is a matter for separate talks on the future trade relationship with the UK rather than the backstop.

Mr Varadkar added: "We couldn't have a situation whereby UK businesses still have access to European markets but at the same time were able to lower wages, lower labour standards, lower environmental standards, lower health and safety standards".

He said fair trade requires a level playing field and added: "I think that would be a concern for all member states."

Mr Varadkar said the Government wants "decisive progress" in Brexit talks ahead of the upcoming European Council meeting to allow the EU and UK to "seal the deal" on a withdrawal agreement in November.

Mr Tusk repeated the assurance that the EU "is united behind Ireland and the need to preserve the Northern Ireland peace process." He added that now the Conservative Party conference was over, "we should get down to business".

He said a "Canada-plus-plus-plus" deal was still on offer to the UK, which would cover trade, security and foreign policy co-operation.

The remarks came a day after Mrs May's speech to her party where she insisted a free trade deal with the EU was the solution to avoiding a hard Border.

Reuters reported EU sources as saying that negotiators see the outline of a compromise on the Irish Border issue, raising hopes that a new UK offer could unlock a deal.

Mrs May has promised new proposals and sketchy details seen so far have found a tentative welcome in Brussels.

"This is a step in the right direction," said one EU source. "It makes finding a compromise possible." A second source said Michel Barnier was looking at where the EU could make improvements to what it has offered London. Mr Barnier himself said negotiations were in their final stages but "to agree to any deal, we need to have a legally sound backstop solution for Ireland and Northern Ireland".

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

Mr Tusk - a former Polish prime minister who grew up in the former Eastern Bloc - said the Soviet Union was about "prisons and gulags, borders and walls", while the EU is "about freedom and human rights, prosperity and peace".

Irish Independent

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