EU leaders have signalled they are open to discussions with Boris Johnson about Brexit if he becomes British prime minister, but have again forcefully ruled out tampering with the Irish Border backstop.
Speaking in Brussels on Friday at the end of a two-day European Council summit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he looked forward to an "early meeting" with Mr Johnson if, as expected, he is elected leader of the Conservative Party next month.
Mr Varadkar said he was open to hearing any “new ideas . . . as to how we could amend the political declaration”, the document that accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement and which sets out the direction for the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
However, he said that it was a settled EU position that the agreement would not be re-opened – a point reiterated by several EU leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Dr Merkel also raised the prospect of talks with the new prime minister, telling her end-of-summit press conference: “There is willingness to work with a newly elected prime minister, to enter into talks again.”
Although the message on the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop was strong and consistent throughout the summit, EU leaders appeared to be holding the door open for the new British prime minister.
Asked if Mr Johnson could agree to a mechanism outside the agreement that could affect the operation of the backstop, Mr Varadkar said: “They’re the kind of conversations that we’re going to have to have with the new British prime minster whenever they take up office. So I’d rather not speculate here.”
Pressed if he was open to the idea of dealing with the backstop outside the agreement, Mr Varadkar said: “The absolute position of the EU is that the Withdrawal Agreement – including the backstop – is not going to be reopening. The political declaration can be reopened and reconsidered.
“But the most important thing for me is always when it comes to the backstop is achieving the objective and that is to have a legally binding and operable mechanism to give us the assurance that Brexit will not lead to the emergence of a hard border between North and South, whatever happens. And that’s what’s fundamentally important – achieving that objective.”
When it was put to Mr Varadkar that without a withdrawal agreement there was no backstop, and therefore a hard border, Mr Varadkar said “a deal without a backstop is effectively no deal.
“Because it means there’s no legal guarantee that we won’t have a hard border, there’s no operable mechanism by which we can avoid a hard border,” he said. “It would just be a case of trying to put it off and I don’t think that is really much of a solution. This is something we need to resolve and we need to resolve [it] now.”
Mr Varadkar said if there was a no-deal Brexit on October 31st, Ireland would be under an obligation to protect the single market.
“We’ll have to make sure that Ireland doesn’t become the back door to the European single market and we’re going to work with the [European] commission on mechanisms by which we can do that,” he said. “But the only way that I can see that we can be sure that we avoid a hard border is through regulatory alignment . . . That’s still where I think we have to end up.”