Brexit: Varadkar’s answer to Border conundrum

North could continue to apply customs union and single market rules, says Taoiseach

The EU is demanding Britain accept Northern Ireland may need to remain inside the European customs union and single market after Brexit in order to avoid “a hard Border”. Photograph: Getty Images

The EU is demanding Britain accept Northern Ireland may need to remain inside the European customs union and single market after Brexit in order to avoid “a hard Border”. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Northern Ireland does not have to remain in the European single market and customs union but could abide by some of their rules after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar said Ireland, the British government and the EU all agree there must be no hard Border between Northern Ireland but the question of how that can be achieved must be answered.

The Taoiseach was reacting to news that the EU is demanding Britain accept Northern Ireland may need to remain inside the European customs union and single market after Brexit in order to avoid “a hard Border on the island of Ireland”.

The European Commission on Wednesday circulated an update on negotiations which concludes that the avoidance of “regulatory divergence” on the island of Ireland is “essential” to protect the peace process.

The scenario of Northern Ireland remaining in the single market or customs union if the rest of the UK leaves has been ruled out by the British government.

Earlier this week, Mr Varadkar said it was “likely” the Brexit talks could move on to the next phase, focusing on any transition period after the UK leaves the EU in 2019, as well as future trading arrangements, in December.

However, he added the decision, which will be taken by EU leaders at the European Council, “will, of course, all depend on what happens over the next number of weeks and what specific assurances and written guarantees we can get from the UK”.

Divorce bill

The talks cannot proceed to the next phase unless the council decides that sufficient progress has been made to date on citizens’ rights, the so-called divorce bill and Irish specific issues.

Mr Varadkar was speaking on Friday at a meeting of the British-Irish Council in Jersey, which was also attended by James Brokenshire, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar said a transition period and free trade deal between the UK and EU are essential, but added that these are issues for the next phase of the talks.

“We can’t really talk about phase two until we have resolved phase one and that involves the financial settlement, guaranteeing citizens rights and also particularly issues relating to Ireland,” he said.

“When it comes to the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, what we have all agreed to is that there shouldn’t be a hard Border, there should be no physical infrastructure along that Border and there should be no return to the borders of the past. The question has been: how do we achieve that?

“It is our view and has been our view for a very long time that the only way that can be achieved is that if the United Kingdom as a whole or Northern Ireland continues to apply the rules of the customs union and single market. That doesn’t mean they have to be members of it, but it would mean continuing to apply the rules of the single market and the customs union and that is the position that we hold.”

Bespoke solution

The Taoiseach pointed to the fact that the Isle of Man, a crown dependency, was not in the United Kingdom or European Union but abides by many EU rules.

“So we are looking for a bespoke solution here that achieves the objective that we all share, which is no hard Border, no return to the Border of the past and no physical infrastructure along that Border. We believe that can be best achieved by continuing to apply the same rules and regulations.

“There is no demand from the Irish Government that any part of the United Kingdom should remain in the customs union or single market.”