Thursday 26 April 2018

Varadkar pulls no punches - but outlines options for a softer Brexit

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks during a press conference at Queen's University in Belfast on his first visit to Northern Ireland: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks during a press conference at Queen's University in Belfast on his first visit to Northern Ireland: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has laid out his "practical solutions" aimed at ensuring that there is no hard border on the island. Options include the formation of a customs union between the UK and the EU or the UK rejoining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

However, he warned Britain that these solutions would not be offered. The UK would have to come asking, he said.

The Taoiseach said the UK was growing increasingly aware of the negative consequences of Brexit.

In a speech at Queen's University in Belfast - his first visit to the North since he took office - Mr Varadkar said the onus was on those advocating a hard border to state how it would work and then convince the public that new economic barriers are in their interests.

"They've already had 14 months to do so," he said. "If they cannot - and I believe they cannot - we can then talk meaningfully about solutions that might work for all of us."

These include the possibility of an EU-UK customs union, akin to what currently exists between Turkey and the EU, he said.

If the UK doesn't want to be in the single market, it could enter into a "deep" free trade agreement with the EU and rejoin EFTA.

While these are being worked out, a transitional period, in which the UK remains in the customs union and single market, could be put in place, he added.

"These are the practical solutions I am proposing."

However, he warned: "These solutions will not be offered, they will have to be asked for. And this can happen only after sufficient progress is made on an agreement on the financial settlement, protecting citizens' rights and key issues relating to Ireland, such as the Common Travel Area."

Mr Varadkar's visit to Belfast came after speculation that Dublin was pushing for the economic border to be in the Irish Sea, rankling unionists. Arlene Foster accused Mr Varadkar of disrespecting the will of the British people by publicly admitting that he hoped Brexit would never happen.

However, the Taoiseach moved to dispel the suggestion that the Government favoured making the Irish Sea the EU/UK border and claimed that a "soft" Brexit could strengthen Northern Ireland's place within the UK.

Mrs Foster, who met Mr Varadkar yesterday, as did the other political leaders in the North, said options for Brexit were "not binary", dismissing the characterisation of 'hard' and 'soft' exits.

Mr Varadkar's address at Queen's was well received by a diverse audience, which gave him a standing ovation as he left.

The solutions he put forward will be seen as an attempt to encourage London to follow suit. But a free trade agreement would take several years to thrash out, thereby requiring, as he stated, a transition period in which the UK remains in the customs union and single market if a hard border is to be avoided.

Persuading the British to back the latter will be difficult, if not politically impossible for Theresa May.

She has already ruled out allowing free movement of people from March 2019 onwards - a key requirement for continued single market membership.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar revealed that he is planning the abortion referendum by the back end of next year.

Irish Independent

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