Sunday 18 November 2018

European leaders will have serious reservations about deal on offer to UK - Taoiseach

  • Strict rules for how open border will operate must be in place - Leo Varadkar
  • Theresa May likely to wait until next week before making final play in Brexit negotiations
Finland's Prime Minister Juha Sipila, right, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the Prime Minister's official residence Kesaranta in Helsinki, Finland (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva via AP)
Finland's Prime Minister Juha Sipila, right, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the Prime Minister's official residence Kesaranta in Helsinki, Finland (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva via AP)

Kevin Doyle in Helsinki and Paul Melia Environment Editor

European leaders will have serious reservations about the deal on offer to the United Kingdom, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned.

While insisting the entire EU is behind Ireland’s demand to maintain an open border, Mr Varadkar cautioned that strict rules for how it will operate must be in place.

It seems likely that UK Prime Minister Theresa May will wait until next week before making her final play in the Brexit negotiations.

She is currently working on the detail on a UK-wide customs arrangement that would see the whole of UK tied to EU trading rules until the future relationship is clarified.

However, Mr Varadkar said this arrangement “has merit” but must come with a guarantee that the UK will adhere strictly to all EU rules relating to employment and environmental.

Otherwise, he said, the UK would be able to “undercut” countries, including Ireland.

He said when the Irish question was first raised, other European countries were “very happy to accept that there would be special arrangements for Northern Ireland”.

“It’s a relatively small place with 1.8 million people and a relatively small economy. And also it has a unique and difficult history and geography so there was a willingness to make special arrangements and give special treatment to Northern Ireland.

“But when you start to extend elements of that to all of the United Kingdom then naturally other European countries and capitals get quite interested in the detail,” the Taoiseach said.

“Their major concern would be giving the UK access to the single market in a way that wouldn’t require it to meet European standards around labour laws, health and safety, environmental protection. I have to say I share that concern.

“We couldn’t have a situation whereby UK firms, after the UK leaves the EU, undercut us in terms of labour rights or health and safety, or environment standards or state aid,” Mr Varadkar added.

Speaking in Helsinki, where he met with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the Taoiseach also said that the backstop review clause being sought by the UK would come with conditions attached.

“We haven’t had many redlines in these negotiations, but one we have had is that we must have a legal guarantee that a hard border will not emerge on the island of Ireland,” he said.

“I have to be very clear on one point. It couldn’t enable the United Kingdom to cancel the backstop unilaterally. The whole point of having a backstop is that’s it’s an insurance policy. It’s a parachute. A failsafe mechanism that gives us a guarantee that there won’t be a hard border on the island of Ireland.”

Meanwhile, a UK Brexit deal will only be struck if there is a “comprehensive agreement” on no hard border being introduced on the island of Ireland, European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič has said.

In an interview with Independent.ie, he said the State could count on “absolute European solidarity” during difficult negotiations, adding that a deal would only arise if the border issue was settled.

Speaking at the fringes of the Climate Innovation Summit in Dublin Castle, organised by Sustainable Nation Ireland, he said negotiations were ongoing.

“All of us would prefer to have a deal, and all of us know this deal could be achieved only if there is a comprehensive agreement on the backstop, on no hard border, is found,” he said.

“You can count totally on absolute European solidarity that all 26 countries are with Ireland on this end.”

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