Europe without Britain could be a difficult place for Ireland, says Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar stresses that the Government will need to 'build up new alliances'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar:  “We are going to have to build up new alliances.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: “We are going to have to build up new alliances.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

A Europe without Britain could potentially be a difficult place for Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Speaking on BBC’s Spotlight programme on Tuesday Mr Varadkar said: “One of the things obviously we are going to have to do is build up new alliances.”

In an interview which dealt largely with his views on Britain’s exit from the EU, Mr Varadkar also addressed much of those negotiations through the lens of Northern Irish interests.

Mr Varadkar said there was a “real understanding” among European leaders that the Northern Ireland case occupied a unique position in the overall debate.

“That this is a special place. That the peace is still fragile and the peace is still young,” he said.

“And because of that there will be enormous flexibility shown towards Northern Ireland. Whereas a hard line may be taken in negotiations with Britain and with London there is a real willingness across Europe to be flexible and creative when it comes to Northern Ireland.”

He hoped politicians and citizens in the North would take advantage of that.

The Taoiseach said Ireland was working to try and secure a more favourable outcome following the Bombardier case in which a US decision to impose 300 per cent tariffs on its jets had placed thousands of jobs in jeopardy. He intended to raise the issue with European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker, adding that “at least for so long as the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is still in the European Union we should be on your side in this regard”.

However, he said, the case was one that should lend some pause for thought.

“The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland as part of the European Union is strong. We’re a big economy, we are 500 million people. And if we do get into a trade conflict with America we are in a much stronger position than the United Kingdom is on its own,” he said.

The EU club

Mr Varadkar was questioned on his “tough” tone toward Brexiteers, particularly in relation to the question about designing a Northern Ireland border.

He said it remained unclear what the UK wanted in terms of a new relationship. It still wanted a close trading relationship similar to the status quo, and yet sought something different, he said.

“And it’s very hard for us as European prime ministers really to understand what the United Kingdom wants the new relationship to look like,” he said.

“It certainly can’t be, and I think anyone will understand it can’t be, having all the benefits of EU membership but none of the responsibilities and none of the costs. If you join a club you obey the rules and pay the membership fee.”

The Taoiseach explained that in forthcoming talks of European leaders, UK prime minister Theresa May would be asked to leave the room when the issue of Brexit came up. He said it was deeply regrettable that the UK would no longer form part of such important discussions or decisions.

“Big decisions that affect Europe, policies that will affect the world, even rules around trade that like it or not the United Kingdom will still need to follow will now be made in their absence.”

On domestic issues, the Taoiseach said it would not have been possible for him to have spoken about marriage equality objectively without having made his sexuality public. He said personal characterisations, such as “Tory boy”, were often made by opponents who could not argue facts and who sought to denigrate people instead.

Balancing the books

On his personal politics, he said he was someone who sought to marry good ideas from the right with those from the left.

“I very much believe in balancing the books; I think we should manage our public finances in a prudent way, pay down the debt,” he said. “I think we should give tax payers some of their money back; [to] people who work very hard, who make it possible to fund our public services.”

Regarding a forthcoming referendum on the Eight Amendment, the Taoiseach said he thought there was a strong majority in the country to liberalise abortion laws.

“The question really though is to what extent. We want to put a question to the public that they will be able to say yes or no to and that isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.”