Varadkar ‘willing to cut British some slack’ on Brexit extension

Taoiseach strikes softer tone than Tusk but warns of a ‘no-deal scenario by accident’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at Government Buildings in Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at Government Buildings in Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

It is time to “cut the British Government some slack”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

He took a noticeably softer line than European Council President Donald Tusk, who said that a short extension to article 50 sought by the UK should only be granted if the House of Commons votes for the Withdrawal Treaty next week.

Mr Varadkar was speaking at Government Buildings this afternoon after the Cabinet discussed Brexit in advance of the summit of European leaders in Brussels tomorrow and Friday, and amid continuing political chaos in London.

He said that while he did not believe a no-deal outcome was likely, there was an increasing risk that it could happen by accident.

“There’s a lot of political instability in London at the moment, as people can see,” Mr Varadkar said. “And there is a real risk, that we wish to avoid, of no-deal happening by accident, despite people’s best intentions.

“So I think it’s time now to cut them some slack - to cut the British government some slack when it comes to their request for an extension and when it comes to their request that the Strasbourg agreement be ratified formally by the European Council over the next two days.

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“So we’re willing to support both of those requests, but obviously we’re not entertaining any change to the withdrawal agreement or the backstop,” Mr Varadkar said.

Asked how long he believed that extension to article 50 - which would effectively postpone the date of Brexit, scheduled to be at the end of next week, on March 29th - Mr Varadkar said: “I don’t have a definitive view on how long the extension should be.”

He said there were complications to a long extension, especially with regard to the European elections at the end of May. Later, he added that the extension “has to be for the purpose of securing a deal not deferring decisions too far into the future”.

“We would prefer to see this resolved sooner rather than later. I think it will be important for EU heads of state and government to hear from Mrs May tomorrow, to hear what her plan is,” he added.

Asked about Mr Tusk’s statement that the UK should only have an extension if the British parliament votes to ratify the treaty next week, Mr Varadkar said: “There are some people who would take a much more hardline view that we shouldn’t agree to an extension and there are others who would take a view that an extension should be granted unconditionally.

“The view I’m taking and the view of the Irish Government is taking is that we want to avoid no-deal on March 29th. We believe that is what everyone in Europe and certainly the UK wants as well and in that context we’re willing to cut the British Government some slack in terms of their request for an extension.

“But when it comes to the Withdrawal Agreement, the Irish protocol and the backstop, those cannot be changed,” he insisted.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged that there is a great deal of frustration in the EU at the monopolisation of the agenda by Brexit. However, he warned: “That frustration can’t allow us to end up in a no-deal scenario by accident.”

Irish Government sources preparing for the upcoming EU summit confess to an unprecedented degree of uncertainty surrounding the outcome, with anxiety growing in Dublin that the increasingly fraught and last-minute nature of the contacts between the UK and Brussels could prompt a breakdown that would result in a crash-out at the end of next week.