Varadkar suggests ‘transition period’ if UK leaving trade deals

Taoiseach outlines solutions to UK leaving customs union, single market

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar puts forth solutions to issues regarding Brexit and the EU customs union. Video: Queen's University Belfast


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has begun outlining a number of what he called “practical” solutions if the United Kingdom insists on leaving the customs union and the single market.

Mr Varadkar proposed that if the British government did not want to stay in the Customs Union then there could be an “EU-UK” customs union similar to the system that operates between the European Union and Turkey. “Surely we can have one with the United Kingdom,” said Mr Varadkar on Friday at Queen’s University Belfast on his first visit to Northern Ireland as Taoiseach.

On the Single Market he said: “If the UK does not want to stay in the Single Market perhaps it could enter into a deep free trade agreement with the EU and rejoin EFTA (the European Free Trade Association) of which it was a member prior to accession.

“And if this cannot be agreed now then perhaps we can have a transition period during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while those things are worked out.”

The customs union and the single market allow for the free movement of goods and services within the union. A country can be in the customs union, but not in the single market, for example Turkey. Countries can be in the single market but not the customs union, for example Norway and Iceland.

Mr Varadkar said these were practical solutions to issues being discussed as party of the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations on leaving the European Union. But he warned the solutions will not be offered they will have to be asked for. And this can happen only after sufficient progress is made on an agreement on the financial settlement between the UK and the EU, protecting citizens’ rights and key issues relating to Ireland such as the common travel area.

Mr Varadkar said the “challenge of our generation is Brexit” and warned as the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said “time is running out”.

“Every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by the outcome (of the Brexit negotiations) — jobs and the economy, the Border, citizens’ rights, cross-Border workers, travel, trade, agriculture, energy, fisheries, aviation, EU funding, tourism, public services. The list goes on.”

Economic border

In the absence of a Northern Executive and Assembly he asked who on Brexit would speak for Northern Ireland and its 1.8 million population. “It will come as no surprise here that I do not want there to be an economic border on our island, not do I want one between Ireland and Britain,” he said. “However there are people who do want a border, a trade border between the United Kingdom and the European Union and therefore a border between Ireland and Britain and a border across this island. These are advocates of the so-called hard Brexit,” he added.

“I believe the onus should be on them to come up with proposals for such a border and to convince us and convince you – citizens, students, academics, farmers, business people –that it’s in your interests to have these new barriers to commerce and trade. They’ve already had fourteen months to do so.”

“If they cannot, and I believe they cannot, we can then talk meaningfully about solutions that might work for all of us,” he added, while then continuing to make his proposals about an EU-UK Customs Union and Britain rejoining EFTA.

Mr Varadkar quoted the Ulster poet John Hewitt who spoke of his “multiple identities – as an Ulsterman of planter stock, as Irish, as British and as European”.

“He believed that we all have multiple identities, it’s what makes us what we are,” said Mr Varadkar.

Mr Varadkar said the voices of Northern Ireland elected members must be heard on Brexit. “We need the Executive, the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council up and running and acting in the interests of our people. We need that more than ever, and we need it now.”


The Taoiseach told the Queen’s University audience that the Government is working on a ten-year multi-annual capital programme to be completed by the end of this year. This would include a “detailed plan” to complete the national road work including links between Dublin, Derry and Donegal.

The Government remained committed to contributing £75 million towards the cost of upgrading the A5 road between Aughnacloy in Co Tyrone and Derry, he said. It would also give consideration to “other infrastructure commitments including the Ulster Canal, the concept of the Narrow Water bridge, and improving line speeds on the Dublin to Belfast rail line”.

Mr Varadkar said Dublin also was committed to the North-South bid to host the rugby World Cup in 2023, which was “hugely symbolic of the new relationship that exists on the island”. He planned to travel to the next stage of the bid in London in September and hoped there would be a First Minister and Deputy First Minister “to be there with me”.