'It's not just customs,' Taoiseach warns May

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets British Prime Minister Theresa May at a bi-lateral meeting in Sofia. Photo: AP

Shona Murray

Avoiding a hard Border after Brexit involves more than just an arrangement on customs, the Taoiseach has warned.

Hopes have been dampened this week that a significant shift on Brexit would be forthcoming from the British. The Irish Independent reported that Simon Coveney is privately briefing that Brexit is heading towards crisis point.

Yesterday, Mr Varadkar reiterated that there was still a huge amount that needsedto be agreed between all sides.

"There is a lot of work still to be done, if we're going to make substantial progress - the type of progress we need to see in June," he said.

He was speaking after a bilateral meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May on the margins of an EU summit in Bulgaria.

Mrs May offered a "verbal, conceptual" proposal on the UK staying within Europe's customs structure, but no clear shape of how that would operate was presented, according to the Taoiseach and other sources.

"The prime minister gave me an insight into some new thinking that UK government has in relation to customs and we'll see how that develops," said Mr Varadkar.

He added that the manner in which the proposals were being introduced was insufficient. He said: "We need details in black and white."

Crucially, missing from her proposal was consideration for the single market that deals with standards and regulations, particularly large quantities of animal produce that criss-cross between the two jurisdictions every day.

"Any move on customs would be welcome but I think I need to be very clear - that avoiding a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is about more than customs," he said.

"I very much emphasised that resolving the issue of avoiding a hard Border requires more than customs, but if the UK is going to make a move in that space then its something we're willing to examine, but we haven't seen anything yet, nothing in writing."

There had been hope that the UK was about to offer a deal that kept them in the customs union for a limited time as an alternative backstop plan until a deeper partnership or better arrangements were made.

Mr Vardakar was unwilling to disclose exactly what the British prime minister had proposed, but he made clear it fell short of Irish objectives on the Border and would not work in a place of the backstop.

Nonetheless, the Taoiseach said he "welcomed" the new thinking by the British side which appears, at least, to move away from the notion that technological solutions would suffice to avoid a hard Border.

"Any move that the UK might make that would help to align all of the United Kingdom and EU in terms of customs in the future would be beneficial.

"It would help solve some of the problems related to the Border, but not all of them. It would certainly help us trade much like we do now," he said.

But the Taoiseach said he "re-emphasised" Irish red lines that there would be no flexibility on the Border issue.

While he would not say he was encouraged by the exchange, he said he "wasn't discouraged". "It's always useful to get insight in to what the next steps would be but there is a lot of work still to be done if we're going to make substantial progress - the type of progress we need to see in June. There's a lot of work to be done between now and then."

Mrs May reiterated her familiar phrase that the UK was "leaving the customs union" as she arrived at the summit in Bulgaria.