Saturday 26 May 2018

Varadkar 'considers Brexit election' as Barnier digs in

EU chief negotiator writes in 'Sunday Independent' that border solution must be in withdrawal deal

Mandate: Leo Varadkar. Picture: PA
Mandate: Leo Varadkar. Picture: PA
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has ruled out a summer general election but remains open to the possibility of an election to seek a "mandate" for the Government's negotiation position on Brexit, the Sunday Independent understands.

The speculation comes as the European Union's chief negotiator on Brexit, Michel Barnier, to be "crystal clear", says that the EU will not sign any agreement with the UK unless there is a solution to the issue of a border on the island of Ireland "included in the text of the agreement".

In an article published exclusively in the Sunday Independent today, Mr Barnier writes: "We will not sign any agreement with the UK unless we - together with the Irish Government - are satisfied with the solution found for Ireland."

Last week serious tensions emerged between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail on a number of issues, including the Brexit negotiations, which have given rise to speculation that Mr Varadkar may call an election after the abortion referendum next month.

However, the Sunday Independent understands that Mr Varadkar has told close associates he has "never been enthused by the idea of an opportunistic election" based on good opinion poll results or good timing.

A Fine Gael source familiar with Mr Varadkar's thinking said: "If there is an early election it'll be because Fianna Fail pulls the plug - or if the Taoiseach needs a mandate for something."

This opens the possibility that the Taoiseach may seek a mandate on the Government's negotiation position on Brexit, after the Budget in early October and an EU summit on October 18-19, when a Brexit withdrawal agreement is scheduled to be clearer or even reached.

Last weekend, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin expressed doubts over the Government's negotiation stance on Brexit in a set-piece speech which caused annoyance in Fine Gael.

Citing the emergence of a "major problem" in the negotiations, Mr Martin said: "Instead of being dealt with as a separate and priority strand, Ireland was attached to negotiations on the overall EU/UK relationship. Reports show a complete lack of progress and a rising belief that there is no breakthrough likely in the coming months.

"In fact, the situation today is that less than a year before the UK leaves the European Union, there is no proposal on the table from anyone which can deliver both Brexit and a soft border in Ireland.

"A rising concern is that Ireland is now being pushed later and later in the negotiations - leaving a real risk that we will face enormous pressure to accept whatever is proposed so that the financial settlement with the UK will not be lost."

However, in the Sunday Independent today, Mr Barnier writes: "I want to underline that the EU is fully committed to having a safety net in our agreement - the so-called 'backstop' option - in case the overall future relationship between the EU and the UK does not in itself solve the border issue.

"This 'backstop' solution will be there to prevent the return of a border on the island of Ireland, and to protect North-South cooperation and the Good Friday Agreement, whatever the future relationship between the EU and the UK holds in store.

"In case there is any doubt whatsoever about our commitment to this, let me be crystal clear: we will not conclude the Withdrawal Agreement with the UK unless we have such a solution included in the text of the agreement. We will not sign any agreement with the UK unless we - together with the Irish Government - are satisfied with the solution found for Ireland."

Mr Barnier, who is to visit Ireland tomorrow and Tuesday, also says the 'backstop solution' needs to be negotiated now: "The EU side has put a solution on the table, which would entail Northern Ireland being aligned to those rules of the single market and customs union which support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and protect the Good Friday Agreement. This option would apply unless and until another solution is found."

Sunday Independent

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