Brexit: Varadkar says gap between EU and UK on deal ‘very wide’

Boris Johnson is due to meet commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at the Fine Gael pre-Dáil parliamentary party think-in at Garryvoe in east Cork on Friday. Photograph:  Provision

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at the Fine Gael pre-Dáil parliamentary party think-in at Garryvoe in east Cork on Friday. Photograph: Provision


The gap between Britain and the European Union over Brexit remains “very wide,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Friday.

His comments come as British prime minister Boris Johnson prepares to make a renewed push to reach an exit deal with the European Union.

Mr Johnson will hold his first meeting with European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday but signs of a breakthrough remained distant with the DUP pouring cold water on suggestions the contentious Irish border “backstop” could be reworked.

An article in Friday’s Times newspaper said the DUP had agreed to shift its red lines on Brexit, saying it could accept Northern Ireland abiding by some EU rules post-Brexit as part of a new deal to replace the Irish backstop.

The paper claimed the DUP had also privately said it would drop its objection to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea, something it had previously said was unacceptable since it would separate Northern Ireland politically and economically from the rest of the UK.

Democratic Unionist Party Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson rejected the report as nonsense. “We will not accept a Northern Ireland-only backstop... It won’t be a backstop by any other name either. We will not be accepting separate arrangements that cut us off from UK”.

He suggested the Northern Ireland assembly would require an effective veto of any EU regulations, only approving measures “if we believe it is to the advantage of industry in Northern Ireland,” something the EU and Ireland have repeatedly rejected.

DUP leader Arlene Foster also rejected the suggestion in a tweet, saying the “UK must leave as one nation”.

“We are keen to see a sensible deal but not one that divides the internal market of the UK,” Foster said.

With Mr Johnson vowing to take Britain out of the EU on October 31st with or without a deal, the EU has focused in recent days on whether the main disagreement - over plans to guarantee the border in Ireland remains open - can be bridged.

A deal reached last year with Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May would guarantee regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland to help keep goods flowing.

But the British parliament rejected this three times. Mr Johnson says the border backstop must be replaced to reach any Withdrawal deal.

The EU says any replacement must have the same effect as the backstop, and so far London has offered no proposals that are considered sufficient.

“We always said we are willing to explore alternative arrangements ... But so far I think it is fair to say that what we are seeing falls very far short of what we need,” Mr Varadkar told RTÉ radio in an interview on Friday morning.

“The gap is very wide,” he said. Mr Johnson’s office said he would hold talks with Mr Juncker in Luxembourg on Monday as he continued his efforts to reach an agreement to smooth Britain’s EU departure.

Incoming EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan on Friday said he saw “some cause for optimism” about a breakthrough in negotiations, Irish broadcaster RTE reported.

But Northern Ireland’s largest political party, whose 10 members of parliament support Johnson’s minority government, suggested a deal was not close, saying it would not let the British region be forced to accept EU regulations after Brexit.

Mr Johnson’s government lost its working majority in parliament last week after expulsions and defections from his Conservatives, which means the DUP no longer holds the balance of power in parliament.

But its votes could still prove crucial as Johnson tries to convince Brussels that he can secure parliamentary approval for any deal.

Also on Friday, incoming EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan said the EU would probably grant an extension to the UK, should one be requested.

“I think that if they ask it in the context of an election, then the 27 other members will grant that extension, but of course we have a bit to go yet because there is a possibility yet that Mr Johnson may wish to engage with the European Union and come forward with proposals to break this impasse.”

Mr Hogan also said “deadlines usually concentrate the mind and on all previous occasions there was always movement close to deadlines” and said he expected this to happen again. - Reuters

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