Risk of no-deal Brexit is low, but preparation must continue – Varadkar

Taoiseach’s remarks come as British government triggers no-deal preparations

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would not negotiate a delay to Brexit, after lawmakers backed a proposal to withhold approval for his agreement until formal ratification. Video: UK Parliament

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he believes it is “more likely than unlikely” the House of Commons will pass a Brexit deal.

He also said the risk of a no-deal Brexit now is “relatively low”.

Speaking in Dublin on Sunday, Mr Varadkar said EU member states are “reasonably asking” what the purpose of another extension to the Brexit negotiating process, beyond the October 31st deadline, would be.

“Obviously the Government is disappointed that there wasn’t a vote in the House of Commons on the Brexit deal, at the weekend,” Mr Varadkar told RTÉ. “The UK has now requested an extension and of course, an extension would be preferable to no-deal if it comes to it.

“However, to grant an extension, we need unanimity of the 27 member states. And member states are reasonably asking: what is the purpose of this extension? Is it more time to ratify the deal, or is it for something else? And I think some clarity from Westminster on that would be very helpful.”

Mr Varadkar also said there will be no further concessions from the EU to the UK.

“No, this is done now. We have negotiated two deals with the UK government at this stage. Both of them supported by 28 governments. There isn’t going to be any further changes and I think the UK government acknowledges that.”

Even though he said the risk of a no-deal Brexit is “relatively low”, Mr Varadkar added the Government is not stepping down its “plans of preparing for no deal”.

“I think the risk of no-deal is relatively low. But, nonetheless, we need to continue to prepare for it and as a result of that, we are not stepping down our plans of preparing for a no-deal.

“But obviously there is the possibility of an extension, which would be preferable to no-deal but that does require unanimity from 27 governments and they really want to know what the purpose of this extension is.

“But even looking at the votes in the House of Commons, while there were quite a number of MPs who voted for an extension. A lot of them have indicated they will vote for the deal. So, I think it is more likely than unlikely that a deal will eventually pass.”

Delay request

Mr Varadkar’s remarks come after the British government insisted that the country will leave the EU on October 31st, despite a letter which prime minister Boris Johnson sent to the block requesting a delay.

Possible outcomes over the past week have varied between an orderly exit on October 31st with a deal – struck by Mr Johnson and agreed upon by the EU 27 – and a delay to the UK’s exit after the prime minister was forced to seek an extension.

Mr Johnson’s defeat in the British parliament over the sequencing of the ratification of his deal exposed him to a law passed by those opposed to a no-deal departure – known as the Benn act – demanding he request a delay until January 31st.

One of his most senior ministers said Britain would still leave the bloc on October 31st.

Michael Gove has said the UK government’s Operation Yellowhammer contingency plan to handle a no-deal Brexit is being ‘triggered’. File photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Michael Gove has said the UK government’s Operation Yellowhammer contingency plan to handle a no-deal Brexit is being ‘triggered’. File photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

“We are going to leave by October 31st. We have the means and the ability to do so,” Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal Brexit preparations, told Sky News.

“The risk of leaving without a deal has actually increased because we cannot guarantee that the European Council will grant an extension.

“And that is why I will, later today, be chairing a Cabinet committee meeting, extraordinarily on a Sunday, in order to ensure that the next stage of our exit preparations and our preparedness for no-deal is accelerated.

Mr Gove said the British government would be triggering “Operation Yellowhammer” – its no-deal preparations. Secret documents that MPs forced the UK government to release last month said a no-deal Brexit could lead to rising food and fuel prices, disruption to medical supplies and public disorder.

The UK government said the Operation Yellowhammer “planning assumptions” were a “worst-case scenario”.

Three letters

Mr Johnson sent three letters to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.

First, a brief cover note from Britain’s EU envoy explaining that the government was simply complying with the law; second, an unsigned copy of the text that the law, known as the Benn Act, forced him to write; and a third letter in which Mr Johnson said he did not want an extension.

“I have made clear since becoming prime minister and made clear to parliament again today, my view, and the government’s position, that a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us,” Mr Johnson said in the third letter, which he signed “Boris Johnson”.

Letter written by UK prime minister Boris Johnson to the European Council President Donald Tusk. Photograph: Downing Street/PA Wire.
Letter written by UK prime minister Boris Johnson to the European Council President Donald Tusk. Photograph: Downing Street/PA Wire.

Mr Tusk said he had received the request from Mr Johnson and would start consulting EU leaders on how to react.

It was unlikely that the EU 27 would refuse Britain’s request, given the impact on all of a no-deal Brexit. Diplomats said on Sunday the bloc would play for time rather than rush to decide, waiting to see how things developed in London.

Irish response

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the deal struck between the EU and UK proposes to cement a hard Brexit and contains genuine uncertainty in important areas.

There is nothing to celebrate in the agreement, he told the party’s annual Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown, Co Kildare.

“This deal is a step away from the finality, or bullet-proof nature claimed for the previous Withdrawal Agreement”.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin speaking at the Annual Fianna Fáil Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown, Co Kildare. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin speaking at the Annual Fianna Fáil Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown, Co Kildare. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

However Mr Martin said “it does protect key elements of the all-island economy and it gives Northern Ireland a real opportunity to uniquely benefit from access to two large customs unions”.

He took a swipe at Fine Gael, which he claimed “has continued to have electoral opportunities as its biggest concern”.

“Literally within hours of the meeting in Liverpool [between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s and British prime minister Boris Johnson] they were out briefing about when an election could be timed. This is exactly what has happened at every moment in the past two years when they thought good Brexit headlines would help.”

Mr Martin said the new consent mechanism “in effect embeds uncertainty into Northern Ireland’s future arrangements. This potentially undermines the ability to attract long-term investment.

“Equally many of the procedures required to implement what is a complex deal in relation to Northern Ireland’s trade with Britain are unproven and have to be developed from scratch.”

He said photo opportunities had replaced proper engagement on the North “and key relationships are at their worst point in over twenty years and the trust which is the foundation for all progress has disappeared”

And he stressed that “We need a new urgency to rebuild the spirit of cooperation which delivered peace on this island”.

Mr Martin also hit out at the British establishment.

He said “the Brexit shambles imposed on these islands and Europe as a whole by a self-regarding and imperially-minded English elite, is a tragedy for all who understand the lessons of the past and believe in the principle of cooperation between peoples and nations.

“It is rooted on an extreme prejudice against rules-based cooperation and a narrow nationalism.”

Orange Order

The head of Northern Ireland’s Orange Order said on Sunday that unionists in the North should avoid staging violent protests over Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal, despite feeling that they had been let down.

Mr Johnson’s deal has been met by fierce opposition from some politicians in the region, including the DUP, who say it weakens Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

“There is a feeling people need to do something but I would be encouraging people that it isn’t a case for street protest at this time,” Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson told Reuters. 

“I wouldn’t like to see loyalist violence,” he said.

Gibson said there is “something wrong” when people in Northern Ireland must fill in customs forms and those in Scotland, England and Wales, the other parts of the UK, do not.

“I think we have been let down by him [Mr Johnson], badly. It’s a deal that could see us sleepwalk in to a united Ireland. He hasn’t understood the unionist position, it wasn’t until now people are beginning to realise that,” Mr Gibson said.

“This deal needs a unionist response from across the board. Parts of the deal need changed because this deal isn’t a good deal for unionism. It orientates us to Dublin economically and we are an integral part of the United Kingdom so should be treated as such.” 

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons in London on Saturday, during a debate on the Brexit deal. Photograph: UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons in London on Saturday, during a debate on the Brexit deal. Photograph: UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images.

Brexit law

Mr Johnson had hoped to pass his newly struck deal at an extraordinary sitting of parliament on Saturday but that was derailed by a legislative booby trap set by a rebel lawmaker concerned that Britain might still drop out without a deal.

MPs voted 322 to 306 in favour of an amendment that called for the legislation around the withdrawal deal to be approved first. This meant Mr Johnson’s was obliged to ask the EU for a delay.

Former minister Amber Rudd said she and most of the 21 Conservatives kicked out of the ruling party over their bid to block a no-deal Brexit would support the deal and there was “a fragile but sincere coalition of people who want to support it”.

Oliver Letwin, the lawmaker behind Saturday’s amendment, said on Sunday that he believed Mr Johnson could probably get his Brexit deal over the line.

“I am absolutely behind the government now as long as they continue with this bill, continue with the deal. I will support it, I will vote for it,” Mr Letwin told BBC television.

‘Childlike’

The Labour party accused Mr Johnson of acting as if he was above the law, and said the prime minister could end up in court.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the party would put forward amendments to Mr Johnson’s Brexit legislation, particularly aimed at closing the “trap door” to a no-deal Brexit kicking in at the end of a transition period in December 2020.

“He is being childlike. The law is very clear he should have signed one letter ... If we crash out, because of what he has done with the letters, in 11 days’ time without a deal he bears personal responsibility for that,” Mr Starmer told BBC television.

Asked whether it would end up in court, Mr Starmer said: “I am sure there will be court proceedings.”

Scotland’s highest court is due to consider on Monday a legal challenge that had sought to force Mr Johnson to comply with the Benn Act.

Under that law, Mr Johnson was obliged to write to the EU seeking a delay if parliament had not approved either a withdrawal deal or a no-deal exit by October 19th.

The court said earlier this month that government lawyers had given formal legal statements that he would abide by the law and that it would be a serious matter if he did not.

Mr Starmer also said an election was inevitable. – Additional reporting: Reuters