Monday 14 October 2019

'I think it is possible for us to reach Brexit deal by end of October' - Varadkar upbeat after Johnson meeting

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet in Thornton Manor, Cheshire,
Noel Mullen/Handout via REUTERS
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet in Thornton Manor, Cheshire, Noel Mullen/Handout via REUTERS
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor. Photo: @leovaradkar twitter
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has said it is now possible to reach a Brexit deal in less than three weeks following a crunch meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Mr Varadkar signalled significant progress in attempts to reach a deal following an intense three-hour engagement with Mr Johnson at Thornton Manor, near Liverpool. Both the Irish and UK governments said afterwards they could “see a pathway” to a possible deal and Mr Varadkar said he is now hopeful there is a basis for negotiations between the EU and the UK to resume in Brussels in the coming days.

Speaking to reporters in Liverpool before he returned to Dublin on Thursday evening, Mr Johnson said: “I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty agreed to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion and to that done by the end of October. But there is many a slip between cup and lip and lots of things that are not in my control.”

Mr Varadkar said he was now “absolutely convinced” that both Ireland and the UK want there to be an agreement. Asked if it remained the Irish government’s position that Northern Ireland needs to remain in the EU’s customs union, Mr Varadkar said: “It remains our position that there can’t be a hard border between north and south and we must continue to have a situation whereby the all-island economy can continue to deepen and function well.”

He said he saw a “pathway towards an agreement in the coming weeks” following his discussions with Mr Johnson.

Mr Varadkar said: “There are of course, issues yet to be fully resolved. The first of the issue of consent, of democracy - ensuring that any long-term arrangement that applies to Northern Ireland has the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

“The second is the whole issue of customs, ensuring that there is no customs border between North and South. And also we’d a good discussion looking forward to how relationships might look after Brexit, how we can strengthen cooperation north and south economically, politically, and also between Britain and Ireland.”

Mr Varadkar said that the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier would meet with UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on Friday and that the Irish government would also engage with the Commission. “What I would hope is that what happened today, will be sufficient to allow negotiations to resume in Brussels,” Mr Varadkar said.

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

Mr Varadkar declined to be drawn on what concessions would be made on either side, saying talks had now reached a “sensitive stage”. He told journalists: “I think sometimes at this point in negotiations or discussions the less said the better.”

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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