Brexit summit: Varadkar ‘reassured’ of EU backing

Taoiseach confident of support for Ireland as EU leaders take dim view of Chequers plan

European Council president Donald Tusk said that the UK government’s Chequers blueprint for Brexit will not work in its present form. Video: European Council

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said other EU leaders have told him a Brexit deal that does not work for Ireland will not be acceptable to them.

He was speaking at the end of the two-day informal summit in Salszburg, at which leaders of the remaining 27 EU states agreed that the UK government’s Chequers blueprint for Brexit will not work in its present form.

“All the EU leaders who spoke gave me their absolute support in standing behind Ireland, and saying that an agreement that doesn’t work for Ireland doesn’t work for the EU. I am leaving here very reassured,” Mr Varadkar said.

He dismissed as a serious “tactical error” those in the UK who appeared to be counting on divisions emerging among the 27.

The same was true, he said, of comments by the Hungarian President Viktor Orban who had suggested that a group of EU leaders were seeking to “punish” the UK.

Mr Varadkar, who had a bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May this morning, said that she promised she would shortly be bringing forward proposals on the backstop, “but we haven’t seen anything in writing.”

He would not be drawn to comment on suggestions that these would address means of putting some regulatory controls on the Irish Sea. “There was a pattern of verbal briefings promising that certain things would happen,” he said, “and when the documents arrive they are not quite what we expected”.

Mrs May, who reiterated her determination not to see two customs territories emerge in the UK, is understood to have expressed doubts about whether it will be possible to conclude the discussions by the October summit. But she told Mr Varadkar she was keen to bring negotiations to a conclusion as soon as possible.

The Taoiseach said: “I can understand when people start using terms like ‘a border in the Irish Sea’...but nobody is trying to dispute the constutional status of Northern Ireland.”

He emphasised the importance of sticking to the October summit deadline for agreement. “I would like to have the deal agreed in principle in October and formalise it at a special summit in in mid-November,” he said.

“Time [IS]running out. This agreement has to be ratified by the European Parliament and Westminster as well...people need to know what is going to happen after March 29th.”

Common Travel Area

He spoke of a willingness to compromise. “Everyone does have to compromise,” Mr Varadkar said, but added there could be no compromise on four principles: a transition period, protecting the Common Travel Area and the rights of Northern Ireland citizens after Brexit and having a legally operable backstop.

“But of course on language, detail, how you actually achieve those things I think any reasonable person who wants to get an agreement as to be willing to compromise.”

In their discussion of the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and UK, supposed to accompany the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, leaders reiterated their belief that the Chequers White Paper could not provide the basis of such a relationship.

That was particularly so in terms of its economic proposals, signing up to only part of the single market and complex customs procedures, which France’s President Macron described simply as “unacceptable”. He said that Mrs May’s “take it or leave it” attitude to these aspects would not work.

Mr Tusk told the final press conference that although “Everybody shared the view that while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work. Not least because it risks undermining the Single Market.”

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May leaves after a press conference at the end of the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
British PM Theresa May at the end of the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Mrs May acknowledged that she had had a “frank bilateral” with Mr Tusk an hour before her end-of-summit press conference in which she was forced to defend. She tried to downplay their unexpectedly strong criticisms of her Chequers plan. “I have always said these negotiations were going to be tough,” May told reporters. “And at various stages of these negotiations, tactics would be used as part of those negotiations.”

The Taoiseach also refused to follow the lead of Malta’s PM Joseph Muscat , who called for a second referendum in the UK. “I don’t think it’s my place or my position as prime minister of a foreign country to be telling the UK what to do.” But Mr Muscat had done so? “I know he did, but I’m not going to,” the Taoiseach replied.

But Mr Vardakar left on a confident note: “I think we are going to get a deal.”

European Council president Donald Tusk said it would be decided in October whether there had been sufficient progress in the Brexit talks to call a special summit in November to finalise a deal.

“Everybody shared the view that while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic co-operation will not work, not least because it is undermining the single market,” he said.

French president Emmanuel Macron: “Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe . . . and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” Photograph: Matthias Schrader/AP
French president Emmanuel Macron: “Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe . . . and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” Photograph: Matthias Schrader/AP

French president Emmanuel Macron said the Brexit plan proposed by British prime minister Theresa May was unacceptable in its current form and that he expected new proposals from Britain in October to sort out pending issues.

“It was a good and brave step by the prime minister,” said Mr Macron. “But we all agreed on this today, the proposals in their current state are not acceptable, especially on the economic side of it. The Chequers plan cannot be take it or leave it.”

The French president, who has taken a hard stance on preserving the European Union’s united front in talks on Britain’s departure from the bloc, said Brexit showed other countries that leaving the EU had negative consequences.

“Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” said Mr Macron. “It’s even more true since they left the day after so as not to have to deal with it,” he added, referring to top Brexit proponents.

Meanwhile, Mr Tusk said the “moment of truth” in the Brexit negotiations would come at the next full summit in October. “In October we expect maximum progress and results in the Brexit talks, and then we will decide whether conditions are there to call an extra summit in November to finalise and formalise the deal,” he said.

Mr Tusk said that at a working lunch of the EU27 without Mrs May present, the leaders had reconfirmed their “full unity”. He added that there could be no withdrawal agreement without a “solid, operational and legally-binding Irish backstop”.

New backstop proposals

Mrs May said the UK would “shortly” be coming forward with new proposals on the “backstop” arrangements for the Border.

The prime minister said she had had a “frank” exchange with Mr Tusk, who had “confirmed the commitment of the other 27 member states to reaching a deal as soon as possible”.

She said two key issues remained to be resolved: “We both agree there can be no withdrawal agreement without a legally-operative backstop. But that backstop cannot divide the United Kingdom into two customs territories and we will be bringing forward our own proposals shortly.

“On the economic partnership, there is no solution that will resolve the Northern Ireland Border which is not based on the frictionless movement of goods. Our White Paper remains the only serious and credible proposition on the table for achieving that objective.”

Mrs May said there was “a lot of hard work to be done” to secure agreement. “If the political will is there on the other side, I’m confident we will reach a deal.”

Chequers

She later defended Chequers to journalists, saying that it remained the only proposal on the table.

“I’m negotiating and I’m negotiating hard in the interest of the British people, and negotiating to deliver on what the British people voted for in the referendum. I am also clear that if we’re going to deal with the commitments we’ve made in relation to Northern Ireland, we do need to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” she said.

“We need to do that in a way that maintains the integrity of the United Kingdom, to do that we need to have the frictionless movement of goods across the Border, the only proposal on the table at the moment that will deliver on that frictionless movement of goods . . . is the proposal that we have put forward in the White Paper.” – Additional reporting PA/Reuters

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