Varadkar says Brexit talks ‘likely’ to move to next phase in December

Taoiseach: border question can’t be fully settled until EU-UK relationship clarified

Fiach Kelly

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said it is "likely" that European Union leaders will give the go-ahead for Brexit talks to proceed to the next phase, focussing on trade, at their next meeting in December.

Speaking in the Dáil on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar indicated this is his own belief rather than a forecasting of what the European Council will decide at its next meeting.

It is the first time, however, that the Taoiseach has indicated that the Brexit talks will proceed to the phase focussed on trade, as well as a transition period after Britain leaves the European Union in March 2019.

Mr Varadkar also said it is "not going to be possible" to definitively settle the question of the border with Northern Ireland until the shape of the future EU-UK relationship emerges.

The talks cannot progress unless the European Council decides that sufficient progress has been made on the three key areas of citizens’ rights, the financial divorce bill and Irish-specific issues.

“I am more optimistic that I was in the weeks before the October summit, “ he said. “That may change.”

Mr Varadkar was responding to queries on Brexit from Labour TD Joan Burton during the Taoiseach's Questions session in the Dáil. It is the first time the Irish government has indicated its own view, outside the other 27 members of the EU negotiating with Britain, that Brexit talks should move to the next phase.

The Taoiseach's move is also significant because of the importance attached to Irish specific issues by Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator.

“People ask me all the time what is going to happen,” Mr Varadkar said. “I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t think anyone does, quite frankly. Deputy Burton referenced the ongoing confusion in London at the moment. This is a rapidly changing situation.”

Mr Varadkar said he gave his views on the state of play in the talks ahead of last European Council meeting last month.

“When we were at this point back in September/October, I indicated that I didn’t think it was likely that we could say that sufficient progress has been made.

“I am now of the view that I think it is likely that we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting, allowing us to move on to discussions on transition and the future arrangements, but that is just my predictor at this stage.

"This of course will all depend on what happens over the next number of weeks, what specific assurance and guarantees we can get in writing from the United Kingdom.

“I can’t predict the future, I don’t know what is going to happen in the next couple of weeks or couple of months but it is my sense that we are moving in the right direction and I am more optimistic than I was in the weeks before the October summit. However, that may change.

"I can't give clarity because it is not clear. It should be evident to anyone who is following this whole Brexit debate there is a lack of clarity because it is not clear. Nor can I give you certainty when I am not certain myself. This is a dynamic, changing situation. Political developments across Europe, political developments in London as well.

“The way it is intended to deal with this is not that everything in phase one has to be agreed before we move on to phase two. It is that sufficient progress has to be made on phase one: on the financial settlement, on citizens’ rights on issues specific to Ireland and that allows us to move on to phase two where we can talk about the transition arrangement and the new relationship.

“It is not going to be possible to fully resolve the border question until we start to talk about the future relationship that the UK will have with the European Union. There will come a point when it is in our interests to actually start talking about that.”