Taoiseach defends Brexit talks strategy

Stephen Donnelly: Government ‘losing leverage’ by allowing negotiations to move on without clarity on Border

Stephen Donnelly: The Government needed clarity on the Border. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Stephen Donnelly: The Government needed clarity on the Border. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has rejected criticism of the Government’s Brexit negotiations and said Dublin has secured “a firm commitment” from the United Kingdom guaranteeing no future hard border in Ireland.

Speaking at an EU summit in Brussels, Mr Varadkar said the United Kingdom had this week reaffirmed the promise in the EU-UK agreement in December to stand behind the “backstop” ensuring Northern Ireland would effectively remain under EU economic rules if there was no deal on Brexit.

Britain had also reaffirmed it was willing to engage on the “text of the backstop” proposed by the EU in last month’s proposed withdrawal agreement covering the UK departure from the EU.

Mr Varadkar was responding to comments from Fianna Fáil’s Brexit spokesman, Stephen Donnelly, who claimed the Government was “losing leverage” by allowing negotiations to move on to trade and future EU-UK relations without securing any commitments from London on how to avoid a hard border.

He claimed it was a loss for Ireland and a victory for the United Kingdom.

The Taoiseach rejected this characterisation of the state of play in the Brexit negotiations.

He dismissed Fianna Fáil’s criticism as being “just politics” and the Opposition party “trying to nitpick and have a go”. Brexit talks should not be seen as “some sort of conflict between Ireland and the UK,” he said.

“It is not a case of when they’re winning, we’re losing or when they’re losing, we’re winning. We are not going to get a good outcome for Ireland on that basis,” Mr Varadkar said.

The best way to secure a good outcome for Ireland was “to make sure that we have an agreement that keeps the United Kingdom as close to the European Union as possible, and that is the best way to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he said.

He accused Fianna Fáil of being “very inconsistent” on its position on the Brexit negotiations.

Mr Donnelly said he did not know if the Taoiseach was being clever or naive in allowing the second phase of the Brexit negotiations on trade to go ahead while there is still no clarity on the Border issue.

“The Government needed clarity on the Border. We are now moving to stage two, and there’s still no clarity, but we’re moving on to the trade talks,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

“We’re losing leverage. The UK desperately needs a trade deal and wants to move to stage two, but there’s nothing concrete about the Border. The Government allowed this to happen. The Government made a serious miscalculation. There hasn’t been any progress.”

Mr Donnelly said that the entire Brexit process was supposed to be in two phases and there should have been closure on the Border issue before moving to stage two.

“We have a letter but no commitment and we’re still moving to stage two,” he said.

In a one-to-one meeting with the Taoiseach last night, British prime minister Theresa May reassured Mr Varadkar of her commitment to the December agreement containing the backstop.

The Taoiseach said the Border issue may not be resolved until consensus is reached between the EU and the United Kingdom on the overall withdrawal agreement by October’s deadline.

Mr Varadkar was speaking shortly before EU leaders adopted guidelines for the next phase of negotiations covering the future trading relationship between the EU and the UK.

“The deadline for that treaty to be done and dusted is October. It has always been an October by the way; nothing has been agreed until everything is agreed,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said Ireland was not under any particular time pressure over the Border.

“We are the ones who are leading so we are not under time pressure in that regard, but obviously if we can have agreement on the terms of the backstop or an alternative to the backstop before June, that is something that we would very much welcome,” he said.

“What is significant about the last couple of days is having rejected the backstop protocol out of hand only a couple of weeks ago the United Kingdom has agreed to engage on that text, and we will be meeting on [an] official level as early as next week on that.”

EU and UK negotiators will start discussions on Monday on how to avoid a hard border in Ireland, examining how the “backstop” will operate in detail and considering the other options proposed by Britain: a broader EU-UK agreement or specific technological solutions for Northern Ireland.

In comments on leaving the EU summit on Friday, Ms May welcomed the European Council’s agreement on the 21-month, post-Brexit transition period that avoids a disorderly “cliff-edge” Brexit when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019.

“This gives certainty to people and businesses,” she told reporters. “It gives them the clarity to plan for their future, and it ensures that they will only have to make one adjustment, one change when we enter into the new relationship with the European Union in the future.”

The British leader said there was a “new dynamic now” in the Brexit negotiations and that the UK was “approaching this with a spirit of co-operation, a spirit of opportunity for the future as well.

“We will be sitting down and determining those workable solutions for Northern Ireland but also for our future security partnership and economic partnership,” she said.

“I believe this is in the best interests for the UK and the EU that we get a deal that actually is in the interests of both.”

Ms May told EU leaders at the dinner last night that the Brexit talks had taken “another decisive step”, and she reiterated her “personal commitment” to the EU-UK agreement reached in December and “to turning it into a legal text, delivering on the UK government’s guarantee of avoiding a hard border”.

The agreement on transition had required compromise on both sides, she said, but it “had delivered certainty for both citizens and businesses in the EU and the UK”.