UK’s ‘red lines’ only barrier to close ties with EU, says Varadkar

Taoiseach makes case for integration on several issues but reiterates resistance on tax

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: ‘The threat on our doorstep today is Brexit.’ File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: ‘The threat on our doorstep today is Brexit.’ File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

Ireland’s and the EU’s relationship with the UK needs to continue to be “close, comprehensive and ambitious”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told students in Belgium.

“I believe the only barrier to achieving this is the United Kingdom’s own red lines. If these change, Europe’s position can evolve too,” he said.

Mr Varadkar warned that time was running out, “there is less than a year until the UK leaves” and insisted it was “essential” that solid progress was made on the Border issue by June.

“Without a solution to the Irish Border there can be no withdrawal agreement. Let there be no doubt about that,” he said, echoing a message that has repeatedly come out of Brussels in the last fortnight.

The Taoiseach, giving the Wilfried Martens Future of Europe lecture in the Catholic university of Leuven, set out Ireland’s stall across the full range of EU policies, his own strong support for integration and the personal inspiration of Mr Martens, a founder of Fine Gael’s European grouping, the European People’s Party.

“The threat on our doorstep today is Brexit, ” Mr Varadkar said.

He emphasised the Government’s determination to defend the gains of the Northern Irish peace process and the Belfast Agreement “in all its parts, and all that flows from it; peace, powersharing and North/South co-operation.”

“It is why we have insisted that there can be no hardening of the Border on our island: no new barriers to the movement of people or to trade.”

The Taoiseach spoke of Ireland’s willingness to share in the burden of mass migration, and in “recognising how we have benefitted in the past, we are willing to contribute more [to the EU budget]”.

He also made a case for the defence for programmes such as the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and cohesion funding, and expanding into new areas such as migration and research and extending the Erasmus student programme.

“I support calls for the establishment of a common asylum policy and system, to replace the current one which is clearly not working. A small number of countries are shouldering the responsibility of providing refugees with a fresh start in Europe,” he said.

Mr Varadkar affirmed Ireland’s commitment to supporting European security and engaging with the new EU defence framework, Pesco; and to fulfilling “the promise of the single market – for example, in insurance, mortgages and loans – so that people can get cheaper loans from European lenders and insurers if necessary”.

Clear marker

As EU finance ministers gather in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a first round of discussions on new European Commission plans to tax the digital economy, Mr Varadkar insisted “we should not accept a situation where large corporations can avoid paying any taxes anywhere”.

But, putting down a clear marker that Ireland’s position on tax is not about to waver, he insisted “decisions on national budgets and the taxation that funds these budgets should be determined by national parliaments and governments”.

“Issues such as climate change, cybersecurity, mass migration, international trade, and the regulation of major corporations are transnational, and cannot be solved by 28 countries coming up with 28 different solutions. We need to think and act together,” he said.

Warning of the “dangers of populism, nationalism and anti-politics”, Mr Varadkar quoted the Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev.

“In his recent book: After Europe, he observed that: ‘Tolerance and civility were long the defining characteristics of the European Union’ but that ‘today they are often perceived as the EU’s core vulnerabilities.’”

Mr Varadkar added: “Those who try to entice Europeans down the pathway of populism and nationalism offer a dark and desperate future, and they know it.

“I am utterly and unshakably convinced,” he said, “that the European Union offers something else. It provides the light to their darkness. Antidote to their poison.”