UK Brexit backstop offer ‘strange’, says Leo Varadkar

Extension of transition period not something that can be exchanged, Taoiseach insists


A longer transition period for the UK to prepare for Brexit would be “a concession to the UK” not a substitute for the Northern Ireland backstop, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar described suggestions by British Brexit secretary Dominic Raab at the weekend of an extension of the transition period instead of a legally binding backstop as “strange”.

“An extension of the transition period would be a concession to the United Kingdom because it would be asking for it, asking for more time to prepare to put Brexit into real effect,” Mr Varadkar told the Dáil.

“It would be asking for more time to negotiate a new relationship. It would be asking for more time to get that new relationship treaty ratified. This would be a concession to the UK.

‘Unusual trade-off’

“We certainly would not be exchanging anything in return for it. I thought that was a somewhat unusual trade-off to propose,” Mr Varadkar said.

He added that the inclusion of a legally binding backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement is something the UK has already signed up to in principle and in writing. “It is not just a matter of substance at this stage; it is also a matter of trust.”

He said the “prospects of an agreement are very adversely affected by the current political situation in the UK.”

“The UK is a very divided country. It is still roughly divided 50:50 between people who want to leave and people who want to remain. Even several years later, those who want to leave still do not know what leave means, which makes coming to an agreement very difficult. However, we are working towards that and I am confident we will do it,” Mr Varadkar said.

‘Landing zone’

Government sources say they believe a “landing zone” for a potential Brexit deal may be emerging in contacts between Brussels and London.

Sources in Dublin are increasingly confident the Northern Ireland backstop will form part of the Withdrawal Agreement, balanced by a commitment in the treaty to negotiate a UK-wide customs arrangement that would eliminate any need for a customs border in the Irish Sea.

They expect also some form of mechanism for the UK to exit such an arrangement at a later date, though details have yet to be agreed. Irish officials stress that this will not be an exit from the backstop, however.

Irish sources are sufficiently confident of an agreement along these lines that some say a November summit to clinch the deal may still be arranged.

EU leaders decided last week there was no point in holding a special Brexit summit in November, but said that decision could be revisited if there was a breakthrough in the Brexit talks.