Monday 21 October 2019

Varadkar and Johnson's meeting to be kept secret as Barnier warns still no basis for a Brexit deal

  • Taoiseach to meet with Johnson tomorrow in bid to hammer out Brexit deal
  • Varadkar says British position causing 'great difficulty' in negotiations
  • Still no basis for a Brext deal - Michel Barnier
On the verge: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a visit to Dublin. Photo: Collins
On the verge: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a visit to Dublin. Photo: Collins

Philip Ryan and Cate McCurry

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s meeting tomorrow in England is being kept secret at the behest of Downing Street it has emerged.

The Taoiseach’s spokesman tonight said the Prime Minister’s office has asked that details of the meeting -  21 days out from the Brexit deadline - should be kept from the public.

The Taoiseach’s Office has refused to give any information on where the meeting with Mr Johnson will take place despite significant public interest.

A statement issued by the Government Information Services said the two leaders at the centre of Brexit negotiations will meet tomorrow in the "North West of England".

"The meeting will be private to allow both leaders and their teams to have detailed discussions about the process for securing agreement for a Brexit deal," the statement read.

At a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting tonight the Taoiseach said the meeting would be held in Cheshire in England.

However, the Taoiseach’s spokesman refused to reveal any further details on the meeting despite attempts by the Irish media to report on the crucial meeting.

The spokesman said it had been agreed with Downing Street that the media would not be told where the meeting will take place.

It is not expected they will take any questions from the media or make a joint statement as is normal when two prime ministers meet.

This comes after the Taoiseach said that the British government's position on Brexit and Northern Ireland is causing "great difficulty" in reaching a deal.

He also said any solution on the border issue must have the backing of the people in Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach, addressing questions about a series of anonymous briefings from within Downing Street, said there has not been any changes to the EU's negotiating position.

It emerged earlier this week that in an anonymous briefing sent to The Spectator, a Downing Street official revealed how the British government plans to avoid the Benn Act and how talks with the EU will break down leading to a no-deal exit.

Speaking in the Dail, Mr Varadkar said: "I don't think much of an anonymous briefing whether they come from Downing Street or if they come from my own ranks, quite frankly.

"There hasn't been any change to the EU negotiating position, we signed our guidelines to the Council meetings, and they haven't changed and they certainly cannot change until the summit next week.

"As far as the Irish Government is concerned, we do want to 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.

"We are absolutely open to proposals that will take into account the democratic wishes and the views of the people of Northern Ireland in relation to consent and relation to democracy.

"But we need to make sure that any such arrangements are workable. It is a sad fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly hasn't met for three years, and has only met for about half the time that's been in existence.

"We also need to bear in mind that the people of Northern Ireland voted by a clear majority to remain in the European Union, that the people of Northern Ireland, when asked, said they were in favour of the backstop that was negotiated with Prime Minister (Theresa) May's government.

"Any solution that we come to, and any solution that I can recommend to this House, has to have support from the people of Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland have given their views on this, that they don't want to leave the European Union, that they would accept the backstop, that they don't support proposals currently on the table from the British Government."

Mr Varadkar said part of the difficulty is the UK's position that Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union.

He claimed it has adopted this position whether the people of Northern Ireland "like it or not".

He added: "That creates huge difficulties for us because we want there to be a deal that respects the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the people in this Republic too."

Meanwhile, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said there is still no basis for a deal on Britain's withdrawal from the EU.

Ahead of next week's crucial EU summit, Mr Barnier said they had yet to see any "operational, legally binding solution" to the issue of the Northern Ireland backstop.

Addressing the European Parliament in Brussels, he said Boris Johnson's proposals to avoid the return of a hard border with the Irish Republic were based on a system "that hasn't been properly developed, that hasn't been tested".

Earlier, UK government sources said that Mr Johnson was planning an emergency Saturday sitting of Parliament following the summit to be held on October 19.

It is thought the British Prime Minister could use the occasion to force a showdown with MPs determined to block a no-deal Brexit.

In his address to MEPs, Mr Barnier said the EU side would continue to work in a "calm" and "constructive" manner to try to find an agreement.

But he made clear that Mr Johnson's blueprint - which would require the return of customs checks on the island of Ireland - was not the basis for a solution.

"To put things very frankly, though, and to try and be objective, (at) this particular point, we are not really in a position where we are able to find an agreement," he said.

"The proposal of the British government as things stand is not something we can accept. It replaces an operational, practical, legal solution with one that is simply a temporary solution."

Following a series of acrimonious exchanges between London and Brussels on Tuesday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told the parliament that they would not get drawn into a "blame game".

"Personally I don't exclude a deal. We are, Michel and myself, working on a deal. And we are not accepting this blame game which started in London," he said.

"We will see in the next coming days how things will develop."

  • With additional reporting from the Press Association

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