Varadkar blames British ignorance of Ireland for Brexit impasse
Taoiseach says UK politicians were ‘very badly exposed’ when it came to Irish affairs
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets European Commission Chief Negotiator on Brexit Michel Barnier at Government Buildings in Dublin on Monday. Photograph: Tom Honan.
Mr Varadkar told the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg that Irish people understand a lot about Britain, but the opposite is not the case.
He criticised the political classes in Britain for their ignorance of Ireland though Britain has a “very colonial history”.
He added: “And that’s one thing that we actually find hard to understand because, you know if you grow up in Ireland, you know, we speak English as our first language, most of us do anyway. We watch the BBC, you know, we watch Graham Norton, we watch your television, your news.
“We really understand a lot about Britain, but I think a lot of British people don’t understand a lot about Ireland, including your politicians ... and politicians in Westminster had to learn more about Ireland.
“And I think as they learned they started to understand these issues, how sensitive the political situation is in Northern Ireland, and how we could never countenance a return to a hard border and how that was more important to us than economic issues.”
“And the fact, I think, that a lot of people in Britain underestimated the fact that European partners will stay by us,” he said.
“There were people in Britain who thought France, Germany and Britain would get together at a big summit and tell the smaller countries what’s what. That is not how the 21st century works. It is certainly not how the European Union works.”
British prime minister Boris Johnson has set the end of this year as the deadline for agreeing a trade deal between the EU and the UK, declaring that there was “bags of times” to get it right.
Mr Varadkar warned that any failure to get a trade deal by the end of this year posed an “existential threat if anything to our economy in 2021 so we want that deal”.
He suggested that it will not be so easy to get a deal because the EU is suspicious that the UK is trying to “undercut us in terms of environmental standards, labour standards, product standards, food standards, all of those things.
“But we want that written down in law, we want that in a treaty so that we know that the UK will not be undercutting the EU with lower standards.”
He suggested to that the trade deal will have to be agreed by each of the EU’s 27 parliaments. “And that’s where it gets messy. That’s where one country can hold things up, or two countries can, and potentially that might be the reason as to why we may need an extension for another year in order to allow parliaments around Europe, maybe where there are elections happening, who knows, to have a bit more time to consider it.”
Mr Varadkar suggested that there should be minimum standards agreed between the EU and the UK, but there needed to be a court of arbitration between them.
He also revealed details of the secret summit he had in October outside Liverpool with Mr Johnson which broke the deadlock in relation to Brexit. The pair agreed a deal which would mean no hard border in Ireland and instead the border would be down the Irish Sea.
Mr Varadkar described the rapport between the two men.
“I think it is a simple story really. It was two guys in a room in Wirral talking on our own for more than an hour,” he said.
“We got down to business and we talked turkey. Sometimes when you do these things without officials present, it is easier. It was one of those strange conversations where the prime minister said, ‘my staff will kill me for saying this, but if I said this, what would you say back? If I move on this, would you move on that?’
“We found out very quickly that we had shared objectives and that we could work together. That was a crucial moment in Wirral. Eventhough it was not all sorted that day, I knew leaving Liverpool Airport that things were looking promising again.”
The Taoiseach said the EU will have the stronger hand in the forthcoming trade negotiations and that a trade deal cannot be agreed in a piecemeal fashion.
“We have a population and a market of 450 million people, the UK it’s about 60 [million], so if these were two teams up against each other playing football, who do you think has the stronger team?” he asked.
“The final deal and the new relationship will have to be comprehensive. That is always the way with these types of relationships. When I hear people talking about piecemeal, it sound a bit like have cake and eat it. You can have a trade deal for the areas where you have an advantage and none where you haven’t. That’s not fair and it’s not something that will fly in Europe.”
Mr Varadkar was asked if he thought Brexit would hasten the day there is a united Ireland. He repeated there is no majority for Irish unity in the north at present with unionists and nationalists commanding about 40 per cent of the electorate each while 20 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted for cross-party parties who “just want to get on with the day to day things like the health service and education and so on.
“So, there isn’t yet a majority for unity in Northern Ireland. And that can’t happen until there is.
“In the meantime, we should all commit ourselves to the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing in Northern Ireland, ever closer cooperation between North and South, and then increasing close cooperation between Britain and Ireland.”
Britain is due to the leave the European Union at 11pm on Friday night.