Leo Varadkar: Government can be ‘flexible’ on backstop

Taoiseach says the main thing is the measure must guarantee no hard Border post-Brexit

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  pictured during a media briefing at Government Buildings. Photograph: Tom Honan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured during a media briefing at Government Buildings. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has stressed that the Government is prepared to be “flexible” on the exact content of the Border “backstop” but would not compromise on what it must achieve.

Mr Varadkar made the comments while speaking to journalists on Tuesday at a briefing at Government Buildings.

“When it comes to the backstop, our position has always been what matters is not the detailed legal text, it’s the outcome, and so what we want the backstop to achieve is a guarantee that there won’t be a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” Mr Varadkar said.

“I know the UK will say that that can be achieved through the future relationship [between the UK and the EU following Brexit], but it could take years to negotiate that future relationship treaty and we don’t know for sure if that future relationship treaty will be ratified because it is likely to be a mixed treaty and any one country in Europe could potentially hold it up by not ratifying it,” he said.

He said that while the Government was “totally enthusiastic” about solving the problem of the post-Brexit Border when the EU and the UK agree on a future relationship, the Irish Government would not back down on its insistence that the backstop is part of a withdrawal treaty between the UK and EU – due to be agreed by mid-October.

In the absence of a withdrawal treaty, the UK is scheduled to leave the EU next March without a transition period – meaning that EU laws and agreements would cease to apply to the UK overnight.

The backstop agreed between the EU and UK last December provides for regulatory alignment between the Republic and Northern Ireland in order to avoid customs checks. It would come into effect in the absence of a wider Brexit deal providing for a frictionless Border.

“We have to have the backstop as well. We have to have that assurance that unless and until a new solution is in place, that there won’t be a Border.

“But yes, we can be flexible certainly on the content of it so long as the outcome is the one that we need,” Mr Varadkar said.

‘Little progress’

Senior Government sources said they expect little progress on Brexit in the coming weeks, but that the UK and EU negotiating teams would restart talks in the middle of August in the hope of reaching a breakthrough on the Border issue in September.

Sources acknowledge that the British ask – to have the UK effectively remain in the single market for goods – would have advantages for Ireland, but say it is unlikely to be accepted by Paris or Berlin, as it would compromise the EU’s single market rules.

Mr Varadkar also indicated that the Irish and British governments will make another push in the autumn to bring the Northern parties back to the table at Stormont, with a view to resuscitating the powersharing institutions before the end of the year.

“We would intend in the autumn some time trying again to get the parties in Northern Ireland together. I think the absence of any clarity around Brexit makes that very difficult, but if we can have that in October, I think there is an opportunity certainly before the end of the year to get the assembly and executive up and running,” he said.

He said that a Border poll at this time would be “very divisive and unsuccessful”.

“Now is not the time to get into all that,” Mr Varadkar said.