Sunday 19 May 2019

Varadkar bids to drum up support for State in whistle-stop tour of European leaders

Leo Varadkar will impress the importance of the backstop. Photo: Frank McGrath
Leo Varadkar will impress the importance of the backstop. Photo: Frank McGrath

Shona Murray

The Taoiseach is hoping to re-energise support for Ireland amid the turmoil of Brexit by embarking on a four-day whistle-stop tour of some lesser-travelled European capitals.

Leo Varadkar is today in Zagreb for a bi-lateral meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

He'll also meet with the country's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Ms Grabar-Kitarovic emerged as an iconic figure at the end of the World Cup for her spirited support of the country's soccer team's success.

The Government sees the week as an opportunity to further the goal of having the Taoiseach meet every head of state or government in the EU at least once - either in Dublin or their capital.

"It's a chance to explain our position and concerns regarding Brexit and to feel out common ground on testy talks over the European budget up ahead," a senior Government member told the Irish Independent.

Both Fine Gael and Mr Plenkovic's Croatian Democratic Union are members of the European People's Party - the political grouping in the European Parliament which is made up of conservative, right-wing parties.

It also includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party and the Fidesz party of far-right leader Victor Orban.

Among EU leaders, the possibility the UK will crash out of Europe with no deal is still very much on the cards.

"Theresa May is all over the place. She's trying to distract from the problems in the party by renouncing the backstop again like she did on Friday," said a Tory insider.

The central obstacle in signing off on the withdrawal agreement is British resistance to the EU's version of the Irish backstop, or 'Irish protocol' as it's known in the document.

The backstop is a legal guarantee that no border will be erected on the island of Ireland by virtue of British government policy on Brexit, even if the EU and UK can't secure a functioning trading relationship after it leaves at the end of March 2019.

If the UK crashes out with no deal, it will be catastrophic for the Irish and British economies.

The UK will be relegated to the status of 'third country' and will have no governing rules or arrangements in place with the EU, meaning the Border will have to be quite heavily fortified to protect the single market from unauthorised or substandard goods.

Most eastern and central European countries are less conscious of the harmful ramifications of Brexit on Ireland, so the visits are purposely arranged to explain why their support is vital.

"We're going to be having a very difficult conversation with Brussels if the British crash out, but it just won't be politically possible to put up a Border," said a Government source.

"It's not enough for member states to say at this stage they don't want a Border, they have to mean it and not try to force it."

Romania will be holding the rotating presidency of the EU for the first six months of next year and will therefore preside over the official Brexit date.

The Taoiseach will travel to the Romanian capital Bucharest tomorrow to meet Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and President Klaus Iohannis.

On Thursday Mr Varadkar will conclude the trip by meeting newly appointed prime minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte, where he will seek assurances Irish migrant rescue ships can still dock at Italian ports, and drop off migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.

The new Italian government is hostile to migrants and refugees, and has been adamant Italy will no longer bear the burden of the crisis.

Mr Varadkar will renew Ireland's commitment to taking more migrants from Italy as part of the burden-sharing agreement, as long as the Italians agree to allow Garda-vetting in the same way as Greece has.

A poll published recently by a UK newspaper showed just 16pc of voters believe Mrs May is conducting Brexit negotiations satisfactorily.

Irish Independent

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