Details of Brexit border ‘backstop’ to be agreed by October

Taoiseach would rather have ‘right deal in October’ than ‘any deal in June’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in Brussels for a two-day summit of EU leaders that will focus primarily on tax and trade. Video: European Council

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he expects the details of the “backstop” in the Brexit treaty guaranteeing no hard border in Ireland will be agreed “certainly by October”.

Speaking at a European Council meeting of EU leaders in Brussels, Mr Varadkar said he would like to see a deal on the no-hard-border backstop agreed with the UK by June or, if it takes longer, by the October deadline for the overall withdrawal treaty covering the UK’s departure from the EU.

“I would rather have the right deal in October rather than any deal in June,” he said.

EU negotiators expect broad agreement around how the UK plans to maintain an open border by June, though the Taoiseach’s remarks push out the timeline around when a final deal might be reached.

Mr Varadkar welcomed the UK’s concession this week that a legally-operational “backstop” had to be included in the withdrawal treaty, two weeks after ruling out a proposal from the EU.

“The British government has now changed its position that they do accept that there does need to be backstop in the withdrawal agreement,” he told reporters on his arrival at the two-day summit.

Monday’s agreement between the EU and the UK broke a deadlock in negotiations on the Irish issue, though both sides have yet to propose solutions on how to maintain an open border. Negotiations on the technical detail around how a hard border will be avoided begin next week.

Certainty

Mr Varadkar said this week’s agreement on a 21-month post-Brexit transition period, designed to avoid a disorderly “cliff edge” exit, will provide certainty to workers, employers and the farming community because the UK will still be bound by EU laws and regulations beyond the proposed exit date in March 2019.

“Really nothing will change until 2021 and that’s very important when it comes to jobs and to business and when it comes to farming,” he said.

EU leaders are meeting in Brussels this week to agree guidelines that will cover the next stage of Brexit negotiations around the future permanent relationship with the UK. The Taoiseach said the “option C” backstop from the three options within the EU-UK political agreement in December was neither the preferred option of the British or Irish governments.

A “really deep free trade agreement” between the EU and UK or a customs union partnership that “would be so close to the customs union” would remove the need to resort to the backstop.

“It wouldn’t necessitate some of the elements that are in the backstop but it’s absolutely our position that in the absence of those alternatives, we must have that in the withdrawal agreement,” he said.

Mr Varadkar rejected any suggestion that there was a danger of Ireland being left behind in negotiations now that it has agreed to a post-Brexit transitional arrangements.

“We’ve absolute unconditional support from across the European Union,” he said. Referring to the solidarity of the other 26 remaining EU states, he cast the position Ireland finds itself in during the Brexit negotiations as a wider issue for the EU.

“In some ways, this is a test as to whether it is worth being a member of the European Union,” he said.

Solidarity with UK

Mr Varadkar offered his support to the UK in the diplomatic stand-off over the nerve-agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England.

“We’re all members of the European Union; 28 of us. We’re all small countries in many ways. But there are big countries that surround us and we sometimes come in to conflict with them,” he said.

On issues of security with Russia and Turkey and on trade with the US, it was “very important that we stick together as well” and that the EU was “in full solidarity” with the UK, he said.

“What happened at Salisbury was loathsome and reprehensible; and we’re going to stand right beside the UK on that issue,” he said.

“An attempted assassination or a chemical attack no matter who does it is something that we’re going to condemn and condemn outright.”

He declined to address a question on whether the Irish Government would follow the UK and expel Russian diplomats over the attack.

On her arrival at the council, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the EU and UK had “made considerable progress” with the agreement on the transition.

She looked forward to the council “endorsing” that agreement and “moving on swiftly” to negotiations on the future permanent EU-UK relationship.