State and rest of EU willing to offer backstop assurances, Varadkar says
Long meeting with May reiterates stance of not reopening withdrawal treaty for UK
European Union leaders at a two-day summit on the Brexit negotiations. Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouws
The Irish Government has indicated that it would agree to future protocols or declarations about the backstop mechanism to prevent a hard border so as to assist the British prime minister Theresa May secure backing in Westminster.
But senior figures stressed that they could not legally change or contradict the backstop provisions already in the treaty.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he and other EU leaders were willing to offer “explanations, clarifications, assurances” but said the Border backstop was “not on the table”.
After a “very long meeting” with Mrs May, before a meeting of all EU leaders, Mr Varadkar strongly reiterated that the withdrawal treaty would not be reopened.
“The deal we have is the only deal on the table,” Mr Varadkar said, echoing a line that every European leader repeated on their way into the summit in Brussels on Thursday afternoon. He said he hoped it could still be ratified in the coming weeks.
“When it comes to the assurances that prime minister May is seeking,” he said, “the EU is very keen to offer explanations, clarifications, assurances, anything that may assist MPs to understand the agreement. And hopefully to support it. But the backstop is not on the table.”
‘Not on table’
Asked if the assurances should be legally binding, Mr Varadkar said “I don’t think we could agree to anything that would change the content of the treaty, so we’ll have to work out exactly what those assurances are and what form they will take. But what I can say is that the backstop is not on the table.”
According to sources familiar with the meeting between the two leaders, Mrs May made a number of suggestions about ways of offering the UK assurances about the operation and duration of the backstop.
Mr Varadkar told Mrs May that some of her ideas could be acceptable but others could not, though he declined to elaborate when asked.
Mrs May accepted that the backstop provisions in the treaty could not be amended, sources said. Her concern was to achieve concrete assurances that the backstop would be brought to an end within a visible horizon – but there was no request from the British for a specific time limit.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who was in Brussels on Thursday for a meeting of the European liberal group Alde, strongly backed the Government’s position. But Mr Martin warned that a no-deal Brexit would require an emergency budget, which he said Fianna Fáil would support.
“In the event of a no-deal Brexit, all bets are off, in terms of budgetary matters, in terms of emergency legislation,” Mr Martin told journalists. “So clearly emergency measures would have to be taken on the Irish side very quickly.”
Asked if this included an emergency budget, Mr Martin replied: “I would think so, without doubt. You’re looking at a significant hole in the budget, in our exchequer figures, if the quarterly review that was published yesterday [Wednesday, by the Economic and Social Research Institute] is accurate. We’ve no reason to believe that it’s not. There would be very serious issues arising on a number of fronts for the country.”