Brexit: Varadkar tells May of openness to deadline extension

Barnier says ‘operational solutions’ will be found to goods crossing the Border

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for Brexit talks in Dublin on Monday, April 8th. Video: Reuters


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke to British prime minister Theresa May on Monday evening about about her plan to seek a further extension to the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period

Mr Varadkar had “repeated his openness to an extension of the deadline”, a government statement said.

Earlier Europe’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said the EU and Ireland will find “operational solutions” to the problem of checking goods cross the Border, while keeping the Border open, if there is a no deal Brexit.

“There have been intensive discussions between our teams over the past weeks,” Mr Barnier said after a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin. “Our role is to protect the Good Friday Agreement, peace on this island and the integrity of the single market.

“It is not an easy task. But I am confident we will find operational solutions. One thing is certain – whatever happens, the EU will stand fully behind Ireland. You have our full support,” he said.

Mr Barnier was speaking in Dublin where he held separate meetings with Mr Varadkar, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. The men discussed the situation in the UK and the emergency European summit on Wednesday in Brussels, as well as Ireland’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

The UK could crash out of the bloc next Friday night unless the British prime minister Theresa May secures an extension of the article 50 process on Wednesday. EU leaders are likely to grant her another extension, though there is division amongst them over whether it should be short or long.

However, Mr Barnier said that there would be no talks between the EU and the UK on a future relationship after a no deal until the three central elements of the Withdrawal Agreement – Ireland, the financial settlement and citizens’ rights – are agreed.

“If the UK were to leave the EU without a deal, let me be very, very clear: we would not discuss anything with the UK until there is an agreement for Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as for citizens’ rights and the financial settlement,” Mr Barnier said. “Throughout all this the EU 27 will remain fully united as we have been since day one.”

Mr Barnier again held the door open for the UK if it wishes to move towards a customs union – opposed by many Conservative MPs but seen as a minimum for Labour MPs to support the Withdrawal Agreement.

“I’ve said many times before that we can be more – much more – ambitious in our future relationship with the UK. The political declaration provides for a range of outcomes including a custom union. We are ready to make this clearer if it helps and this work can be done extremely quickly,” Mr Barnier said.

Mr Varadkar said that Ireland favoured extending the end-of-week deadline to allow the discussions in Westminster to continue, and hinted at the divisions on the EU side on the length of the extension which should be granted to the UK, and on what conditions.

“We also exchanged views on the length of a possible extension and I look forward to discussing this further with my EU counterparts at the European Council on Wednesday,” Mr Varadkar said.

“I’ll be speaking to some of them on the phone today and tomorrow. There will of course be different views, but I’m confident that we will reach agreement,” he said.

Mr Barnier and the European Commission are thought to favour a shorter extension for the British, fearful that the lack of a deadline will allow events at Westminster to drift. They are also nervous that the UK could be a disruptive presence in the EU over the coming months, especially if Mrs May is replaced by a hard Brexiteer leader.

Emergency summit

Meanwhile Mrs May is to visit the French and German leaders tomorrow ahead of Wednesday’s emergency European Council summit to discuss the UK’s request for a further extension to the Brexit process.

Mrs May will meet German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Tuesday.

Time is running out for Mrs May to reach a Brexit compromise with Labour ahead of the summit. In the absence of an extension the UK is due to leave the EU at 11pm on Friday.

Mrs May has angered Tories by holding talks with Labour, with Brexiteers including former foreign secretary Boris Johnson concerned she will accept a customs union as the price for a deal with Jeremy Corbyn.

But British culture secretary Jeremy Wright agreed there was a need for compromise during the talks with Labour, although these have not yet been confirmed as continuing today.

Mrs May has told EU leaders she wants a delay to Brexit until June 30th at the latest, with the possibility of an early exit if she can get a deal through Parliament.

Meanwhile, Britain’s House of Lords approved legislation on Monday evening that will give parliament the power to scrutinise and even change Mrs May’s request that the EU agree to delay Brexit until June 30th.

The legislation, which is being passed despite government opposition to it, will now return to the House of Commons for further consideration with a view to being finalised and turned into law later on Monday.

MPs want additional legal guarantees against a no-deal exit happening on April 12th and have crafted a law forcing ministers to consult with parliament on Tuesday before the prime minister goes to Brussels.

That would give MPs the chance to make legally binding changes to Mrs May’s requested departure date during a debate scheduled to last 90 minutes on Tuesday.

Brussels is expected to demand a clear strategy from the prime minister at a meeting of EU leaders on Wednesday and could insist on a longer delay which would require the UK to participate in European elections.

Cross-party talks

In a video message recorded in her Chequers country retreat, Mrs May said both sides will have to compromise in the cross-party talks with Labour. The negotiations stalled after Labour said the prime minister had refused to set out any changes to her Brexit red lines and no further face-to-face meetings have yet been confirmed.

Mrs May acknowledged she could not see the Commons accepting her deal in its current form and MPs would not agree to a no-deal exit – currently the default position.

The Culture Secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we have to move forward... We must make sure we’re all prepared to compromise to fulfil that primary objective.

“I think that’s achievable. I would prefer we did it on the basis of the prime minister’s deal ...”

Mr Johnson used his Daily Telegraph column to warn that Tory MPs would not allow Mrs May to “surrender” to Mr Corbyn.

“If the UK were to commit to remaining in the customs union, it would make a total and utter nonsense of the referendum result,” he said. “To agree to be non-voting members of the EU, under the surrender proposed by Jeremy Corbyn – it cannot, must not and will not happen.”

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