There will "always be a seat kept" for the UK at the European Union's table should it wish to rejoin at some stage if Brexit does not "work out", Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
Speaking alongside the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at Government Buildings, Mr Varadkar told reporters that he was "absolutely relieved" that the first phase of the Brexit process was over but "saddened" by the UK's departure from the EU on Friday.
“We will say goodbye to an old friend embarking on an adventure. We hope it works out for them but if it does not, there will always be a seat kept for them at the table,” he said.
The Fine Gael leader said that the people of Ireland would "wake up to a new day" on Saturday.
The next phase of Brexit, negotiating a trade deal, would be “very challenging” as “time is short” with the UK leaving the EU customs union and single market on December 31st, he said.
Speaking after a meeting with Mr Barnier that lasted about an hour, the Taoiseach said that he was “very ambitious” for a future EU-UK trade agreement but warned there “has to be realism.”
“We need to start the relationship between EU the UK on a firm and honest footing. And that means a level playing field,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said that if the next talks were seen as “a contest”, then the EU is in a “very strong” position, with the single market being the world’s largest economy.
He denied he had used the word “upper hand” in a BBC interview at the weekend.
“I don’t think we have to see it as a contest. There is a possibility for us to work together with UK over the next few months and come to a future relationship and a trade agreement that’s mutually beneficial and that is the spirit in which we will be entering these talks,” he said.
Mr Barnier said that the EU would “watch over” the implementation of Brexit deal for Ireland “very carefully.” It was “time for round two and this time will be very short,” he said.
He cautioned about the risk of a “cliff edge” for trade in particular if the EU and UK could not agree a trade deal by the end of the standstill transition period at the end of the year.
“If we have no agreement, it will not be business as usual,” he said.
The French negotiator said that a key point in the trade talks was that the level of access for UK goods to the EU market had to be “proportionate” with the UK’s future alignment with EU rules.
Mr Barnier said that the EU’s negotiating team would work with whatever government was elected by Irish citizens on February 8th.
Asked why Brexit was not resonating with voters in the election campaign, Mr Varadkar pointed to polls showing him slightly ahead of the other party leaders in the approval ratings. He noted that the polls showed the public trusted Fine Gael more on Brexit ahead of the other parties.
He tied spending on health, housing and children, and tax reductions - issues that were playing more strongly with voters - to the next government securing a good trade deal with the EU.
“The issues that dominate this election are actually very much interlinked. Because only a strong economy, only a favourable Brexit for Ireland will allow us to do all the things in healthcare as in childcare that all know are necessary,” said Mr Varadkar.
Asked if he had any advice for politicians struggling to get re-elected, Mr Barnier said: “Always working in the middle of the road.”
There was a valedictory feel to the statements at this press conference, with Mr Barnier paying tribute to Mr Varadkar and his government, politicians in the Dáil and Seanad, and Irish civil servants ahead of the election that could see a change of administration at Government Buildings.
Mr Barnier will deliver a speech on Brexit at Queens University in Belfast on Monday evening.