Brexit: UK promise on Irish border given ‘legal weight’ - Varadkar

Taoiseach will not lobby anyone in Westminster before Commons’ vote as it’s an ‘internal matter’

Tánaiste Simon Coveney (left) and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a press conference on Brexit at Government Buildings in Dublin on Wednesday night. Photograph:  Niall Carson/PA Wire.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney (left) and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a press conference on Brexit at Government Buildings in Dublin on Wednesday night. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

 

The UK government’s political promise to avoid a hard border in Ireland has now been given legal weight in the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar said the previous promise to avoid a hard border - which he hailed as “bulletproof” last year - had now been strengthened. He also described today as “one of the better days in politics”.

The initial promise of the backstop - the insurance clause to avoid a hard border if future EU-UK trade talks fail - was contained in a political agreement struck last year.

However, the withdrawal agreement, if enacted, will put the backstop on a legal basis.

“What I said last December is what we have to do is to turn all of the commitments that were made last December in the joint report into the legally binding text, into an international treaty, and that is what we have here today. This is even stronger than what we had back in December,” he told a press conference at Government Buildings in Dublin on Wednesday night.

However, the withdrawal agreement must yet pass through both the European Parliament and the House of Commons, where it faces its biggest test.

“There is of course, a bit of a way to go, there is the possibility of this being defeated in Westminster or even the European Parliament but I think we are in a stronger position than we were last December,” the Taoiseach said. “We have turned a joint report, a political promise, into a legally binding treaty agreed by the UK government.”

‘Internal matter’

Mr Varadkar said he had not spoken to British prime minister Theresa May since the deal was published but expected to do so in the coming days. He indicated that the Government would not lobby anyone in Westminster on the upcoming vote.

“I am very conscious that what is going to happen now in Westminster is an internal matter for the United Kingdom and it may not be appropriate for the Irish government to be interfering or lobbying in their affairs.”

The UK will potentially crash out of the EU without a deal and a transition period - leading to a hard border next March - if the withdrawal agreement is not passed.

Mr Varadkar said it is “hard to see where we go” if that happens, whilst also holding open the prospect of the UK remaining in the EU.

“As others have said, it is either a hard Brexit or perhaps no Brexit at all,” he said. “It is impossible for me to predict how the vote in Westminster will go. I do think that people have consistently underestimated the mettle and courage of prime minister May. Let’s see how she gets on.”

Future relationship

He also said the political declaration accompanying the withdrawal agreement outlines how the future EU-UK relationship could develop.

When asked if the backstop - which allows for an EU-UK customs area with special add-ons for Northern Ireland - pointed the way to the future relationship, Mr Varadkar said: “Should this deal be agreed by Westminster and the European Parliament, we can then begin negotiations on that future relationship and it is a very ambitious one and one that involves a deep and close relationship between the EU and the UK. That is something we look forward to working on during the transition phase, if we get to it.”