Taoiseach insists Ireland has secured 'good deal' as EU leaders meet for crunch Brexit summit
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he regrets the UK’s departure from the European Union – but insisted Ireland has secured a “good deal” from Brexit.
Mr Varadkar was speaking as the EU leaders gathered in Brussels for a special summit to rubber stamp a 585-page legal text on the UK divorce deal and a 26-page general declaration to frame negotiations on a a future relationship between Britain and the remaining 27 member states.
On his way into the summit meeting, which will put the UK beyond the point of no return in ending its 46-year EU membership, Mr Varadkar said the meeting was a sad occasion and the culmination of two years of negotiations between Brussels and London.
“I still regret the fact that the UK is leaving the European Union. I think the best thing for Ireland and for Europe would be for the UK to stay in the European Union, stay in the single market and the customs union. But we respect their decision,” the Taoiseach told reporters in Brussels.
But he said the draft “Withdrawal Agreement” protected Irish interests, citizens’ rights, a common travel area, and a transition which will allow the EU and UK to negotiate a new future relationship. If those talks failed Ireland still had the so-called “backstop” which would ensure there will be no return of border controls in Ireland and continued free trade with Britain.
“It allows us to move on,” Mr Varadkar added.
The Taoiseach said he was confident the 28 leaders would endorse the draft Brexit deal. The UK will leave the EU at 11pm Dublin time on March 29 next and a transition period, ensuring no change in the relationship, will continue at least until December 2020 and perhaps for a year or two beyond that date.
Arriving for the summit, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: "This is the deal. It's the best deal possible and the EU will not change its fundamental position when it comes to these issues."
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the deal with the UK was a "necessary step" ahead of next phase of the negotiations.
"I have worked with my team and negotiated with the UK, never against the UK," he told reporters as he arrived for the summit in Brussels.
"Now it is time for everybody to take their responsibility. This deal is a necessary step to build the trust between the UK and the EU we need to build.
"The next phase is an unprecedented and ambitious partnership. We will remain allies, partners and friends."
The British Prime Minister has written a 'letter to the nation', insisting her EU withdrawal agreement will work "for our whole country and all of our people, whether you voted 'Leave' or 'Remain'".
Mrs May said the deal will "honour the result of the referendum", taking back control of UK borders, money and laws, and taking the country out of EU programmes like the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy "that do not work in our interest".
She said the deal "works for every part of our country - for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for our Overseas Territories like Gibraltar, and also for the Crown Dependencies".
And she called for Brexit day on March 29 next year "to be a moment of renewal and reconciliation for our whole country ... when we put aside the labels of 'Leave' and 'Remain' for good and we come together again as one people".
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte warned there could be no further negotiation and said he hoped the British Parliament would now back the deal.
"This is the deal on the table. I don't think there is anything more now. I don't want to contemplate a no vote. I think there will be a yes vote," he said.
"I think this is the best we can all do - both Theresa May and her Government as well as the European Union.
"I have lots of respect for Theresa May and what she has done over the last two years and particularly the last two or three weeks.
"I do think she has everything now to argue for a yes vote in the British Parliament."