Tusk’s backing for Ireland on Border could not have been stronger
European Council president says if UK offer is unacceptable to Ireland, it will be unacceptable to EU
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at Government Buildings. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The visit of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, to Dublin on Friday was always going to be significant – a symbolic showing of solidarity with the one member of the 27 most impacted by Brexit.
What was not expected was how robust that support would be. In a short impactful statement, Tusk endorsed the Government’s approach to the hilt.
Standing side by side with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, he used unequivocal language to state the European Union unreservedly supported the Irish position.
After a bruising political week domestically, this was a huge boost for Varadkar and his Ministers. It came three days ahead of the Monday deadline when British prime minister Theresa May must make a final offer on behalf of her government on the three key “phase one” issues: the so-called divorce bill; the respective domicile rights of EU and UK citizens post-Brexit; and the Border issues affecting Ireland.
Tusk’s key line was the Government would effectively have the power to vet the British proposal on the Border if the Republic deemed it insufficient. In short, there was nothing to separate the views of Dublin and Brussels on the issue.
“We agreed today that before proposing guidelines on transition and future relations I will consult the Taoiseach on [whether or not] the UK offer is sufficient for the Irish Government.
“Let me say very clearly, if the UK offer is unacceptable for Ireland it will be unacceptable for the EU.”
There followed the most remarkable passage of the short speech. He said that position might be hard for British politicians to understand, but the logic lying behind it was the fact that Ireland was still an EU member while the UK was leaving. “This is why the key to the UK’s future lies, in some ways, in Dublin at least as long as Brexit negotiations continue.”
It’s hard to exaggerate the effect of that line and its implications for negotiations. Besides fighting fires at home, both Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney have run into considerable political flak in Britain in recent days from commentators as well as Conservative and unionist politicians.
This stemmed mainly for their temerity in expressing public impatience and frustration at the lack of detail emerging from the British side, and also from sketching out some consequences.
The Government’s approach was also bolstered by a phone call to the Taoiseach from EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker earlier on Friday afternoon in which he expressed very similar sentiments and support to those of Tusk.
The implications of this are obvious. Coveney had signalled that anything that amounted to a fudge from Britain would be completely unacceptable to Ireland. Tusk’s support now guarantees that Ireland will not find itself isolated if the British offer falls short of expectations or lacks sufficient detail.
For his part, Varadkar stressed the urgency, but said he was an optimist by nature and believed agreement could be reached. “We will stand firm with our partners if need be if the UK falls short on any of the three issues, particularly the Irish one.”
Tusk’s definition of the Border was highly significant. The Good Friday agreement had transformed it, he said, from being a symbol of division to a symbol of co-operation. “We cannot allow Brexit destroy this agreement,” he said before firmly putting the matter in Britain’s court.
“It is the UK who started Brexit, and now their responsibility to propose a credible commitment to do what is necessary to avoid a hard Border.”
In another iteration of his support, Tusk quoted an old Irish proverb which says there is no strength without unity.“Ní neart go cur le chéile,” he said.
It’s a long time since a visiting Polish dignitary tried his hand at speaking Irish in Ireland, but Tusk’s pronunciation was as clear as John Paul II’s in 1979.
The intent behind it was also clear. It was the strongest possible backing for Ireland a fortnight before the crucial EU Summit on the issue.