Juncker accepts there may be no deal with UK on Brexit

European Commission president tells Oireachtas Ireland comes first in talks

The European Union must prepare for the possibility of failing to reach a deal on Brexit, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said.

Addressing a joint sitting of the Dáil and Seanad , the former prime minister of Luxembourg said that “as the clock to Brexit ticks down, we must prepare for every eventuality, including no deal”.

“This is neither a desired nor a likely outcome, but it is not an impossible one and we are getting ready just in case,” he said.

Mr Juncker said it was in everybody’s interest for the UK and the EU to stay as close as possible and to be friends, partners and allies.

“The reality is there is no arrangement outside the European Union which is as good as membership,” he added.

He said a pragmatic approach would be taken to finding solutions.

“But I also want to be clear, Ireland will come first.”

Mr Juncker said those who thought the other 26 countries would abandon Ireland for a deal that suited them did not understand what being part of the union was. To applause, he said Ireland’s Border was the union’s priority.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the greatest challenge Ireland faced was to "solve the riddle of Brexit".

He said the Government was “deeply grateful for the remarkable solidarity and support we have received from the EU institutions and fellow member states, none more so than from president Juncker”.

‘Diligence and understanding’

Mr Varadkar also paid tribute to the “diligence and understanding shown by the commission’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier”, who travelled to Dublin with Mr Juncker.

The Taoiseach, referring to the particular challenges faced by Ireland with Brexit, said “the backstop for the Irish Border, agreed in December, must be legally operative in the withdrawal agreement to apply ‘unless and until’ an alternative solution is agreed”.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said “there is a considerable and growing unease about the failure to move from generalities to concrete and final agreements in the negotiations”.

“The simple fact today is that London may actually never come up with a credible proposal,” he warned. “We are extremely concerned with how negotiations on the Irish text have now been linked with the overall withdrawal treaty text and its provisions for final status negotiations.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said British prime minister Theresa May had “set out a policy of Ireland last, if at all”.

‘New relationship’

She said, “We are most disappointed that, despite an assurance that the Irish question would be answered in advance of setting out the details of the new relationship that Britain wishes to foster with the EU, this has not happened.”

Ms McDonald said “in the absence of the British demonstrating how they would avoid a hard border, uphold the Good Friday Agreement and protect citizens’ rights, it is reckless to allow talks to progress to the next phase”.

She appealed to Mr Juncker and Mr Barnier “not to make this mistake”.

Ms McDonald said :“I hope the EU does not blink and fulfils this mission” of “Ireland first and Ireland now”.

Mr Juncker intervened in response to People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, who asked if Ireland could trust him "with our Border or the interests of the people in this country".

Mr Boyd Barrett said “We do not trust the Tories. Can we trust you?”.The commission president replied “Yes.”

Michael O'Regan

Michael O'Regan

Michael O’Regan is a former parliamentary correspondent of The Irish Times

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times