Brexit: Varadkar and Johnson plan talks amid growing rancour

Language ‘from some quarters’ toxic, says Taoiseach, as Downing Street spins

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: ‘I don’t play dirty, and I don’t think most EU leaders do either.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: ‘I don’t play dirty, and I don’t think most EU leaders do either.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson will meet later this week in a last-ditch effort to save talks on a new Brexit deal that were on the verge of collapse on Tuesday.

The Taoiseach and the UK prime minister spoke by phone for 45 minutes on Tuesday evening in what both sides described as a constructive exchange.

They are expected to meet in Dublin on Thursday or Friday for what is likely to be the last opportunity to find a compromise that could lead to a deal ahead of next week’s meeting of the European Council.

Speaking in Brussels on Tuesday night after a meeting with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he believed Mr Johnson still wanted to do a deal.

“He confirmed that again to the Taoiseach this evening on the phone, and we believe him in that,” Mr Coveney said.

“I don’t think things have reached an impasse, but there are certainly significant gaps to close and I think you’ll see ongoing discussions [on Wednesday] and into Thursday.”

Earlier the Tánaiste said he thought this week’s briefing by a Downing Street source to the Spectator magazine, which claimed the Taoiseach did not want to negotiate on a deal, was designed to put pressure on Ireland and Mr Varadkar.

Three senior officials expressed bemusement at the briefing, widely attributed to the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, but all expressed the view that statements from Downing Street were aimed at British voters rather than EU leaders.

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Senior Irish sources added the Taoiseach “absolutely” did not promise to make concessions on Brexit if the British accepted regulatory checks between the North and the rest of the UK, as claimed by Downing Street sources.

Toxic language

Asked on RTÉ News on Tuesday night about the spinning against Ireland, Mr Varadkar acknowledged the language “from some quarters” had turned toxic on Brexit. “But I don’t play dirty, and I don’t think most EU leaders do either.”

Mr Varadkar said he would work “until the very last moment” to secure a deal “but not at any cost”, adding a deal now looked very unlikely.

Irish Government sources continue to dismiss the idea that a last-minute deal between the UK and the EU is possible before next week’s summit.

The two sides disagree about the role of the Stormont institutions in approving the regulatory alignment of goods across the island of Ireland. And they are deadlocked over the issue of customs, with Britain insisting that Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union with the rest of the UK, creating a customs border between North and South.

Downing Street sources briefed on Tuesday morning that the talks were close to collapse after a conversation between Mr Johnson and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU, they could do it no problem, but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment for ever,” the source said.

“It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways. If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever. It also made clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.”

‘Blame game’

The prime minister’s official spokesman described the 30-minute call as “frank” and “robust” and said that although talks with the EU were at a “critical” moment, they were continuing. Dr Merkel’s spokesman declined to comment on the conversation, but European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted his disapproval of Mr Johnson following the Downing Street briefing.

“What’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game,” he said. “At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis [where are you going]?”

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the reported comments from the German chancellor revealed the EU was not interested in negotiating a compromise with the UK.

“The prime minister’s proposals have flushed out Dublin’s real intentions to trap Northern Ireland in the EU customs union for ever, where Dublin rather than the United Kingdom’s elected representatives would be in the driving seat. We will not accept any such ultimatum or outcome,” she said.

British and EU negotiators met for technical talks in Brussels on Tuesday but both sides agree that, unless they are close to agreement by the end of this week, there will be no deal ahead of next week’s summit.

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