The new British prime minster will get a "fair hearing" from the European Union but the current Brexit deal and the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard border, will not be changed, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
Mr Varadkar said it had to be understood that the EU and Ireland “mean what we say” when they ruled out any changes to the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Speaking at a summit of the British-Irish Council in Manchester, the Taoiseach declined to comment on the positions taken by the two contenders in the current Conservative leadership contest in the UK.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, who are running to succeed Theresa May as Tory leader and prime minister, have both said they will seek to renegotiate the Brexit deal.
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt have said a hard border in Ireland could be avoided by the use of technology, although the EU and Ireland have repeatedly said they believed no such technology exists.
It's very dangerous to continue to waste time assuming something can be achieved that the European Union has made very clear, can't be achieved.
Mr Varadkar said it would not “be helpful” for him to intervene the the Conservative contest.
“Whoever is prime minister towards the end of July, I look forward to meeting with them,” the Taoiseach said. “Certainly anything that a British prime minister has to say in relation to resolving the Brexit impasse will get a fair hearing from me and from everyone in the European Union.
“At the same time, it needs to be understood that we also mean what we say. The withdrawal agreement won’t be reopened. Without a backstop, there will be no transition period or implementation phase but we are willing to examine the joint political declaration and make amendments to that that enables to proceed an orderly Brexit, a guarantee there will be no border between North and South which is our shared objective.”
NI politicians absent
Brexit was one of he the main item of discussion at the BIC, which was established under the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Other attendees included David Lidington, the UK deputy prime minister; Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon; Welsh first minister Mark Drakefort; and the chief ministers of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. No representatives from Northern Ireland were present because the Stormont institutions are currently not in operation.
Mr Lidington, who is supporting Mr Hunt, recently corrected Mr Johnson over his claims that the UK would still be entitled to a post Brexit transition period even if it did not leave the EU through the withdrawal agreement. A transition period is part of the withdrawal agreement.
However, both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson have said they are prepared to leave the EU without a deal if necessary. Mr Lidington indicated he believed the Brexit deal cannot be reopened, despite what both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson have said.
“I have always taken the EU at its word in saying that the withdrawal agreement is not going to be reopened,” he said.
“What I take heart from is both candidates said they don’t wish to have a no deal exit, that they both want to have a deal, and I think it is important that we take their word on that.”
But Nicola Sturgeon said there was now a “real danger” of a no-deal “crash out” becoming “inevitable” - and it was “futile” to waste time trying to re-negotiate.
She said: “I think there’s a real danger right now, the positioning of the contenders for leadership of Tory Party starts to make no deal inevitable.
“I think there’s an alternative to no deal, which is no Brexit through a second referendum, but there’s a danger we end up on a path to no deal that’s very difficult to stop and that is of significant concern.
“I do think a responsible government and responsible prime minister would make clear that avoiding no deal is an absolute priority, and would not allow UK to crash out of the EU with no deal.
“What I think we should all seek to avoid is further time being wasted in this process with a futile attempt to re-open and re-negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, when the European Union has, and I work on David’s comment that he takes them at their word, because I think it’s very dangerous to continue to waste time assuming something can be achieved that the European Union has made very clear, can’t be achieved.”
Both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Varadkar said economic assessments forecast rising unemployment and negative consequences for growth and government budgets in their countries if the UK left without a deal.
The Taoiseach added: “No one is really going to know for sure what the extent of harm will be or how it will play out.”
Both were asked if Brexit could be stopped during a press conference at the end of the summit.
Mr Varadkar said: "Well whether Brexit is stopped or not isn't my business, that's a decision for parliament and the people of the United Kingdom. "
Ms Sturgeon said: "Yes I do think Brexit can still be stopped. Let's be frank about it, time is running out, but if we get and this would be a pre-requisite of this, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party into an unequivocal position of supporting a second referendum, then I think the conditions start to be there for a majority for a second referendum in the House of Commons - and that is the route to stopping Brexit.
“Of course you can’t take for granted what the outcome of a second referendum would be, but that is the route to stop it.”