Varadkar tells UK there are pragmatic solutions to be had but UK has to ask for them
Prime Minister Theresa May should go back to the drawing board and radically revise her Brexit plans if needless economic and political damage is to be avoided, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in a major speech in Belfast last weekend.
The Taoiseach, who was born in 1979, also supported Belfast’s Pride celebrations and said it was only a matter of time before Northern Ireland followed Ireland and the rest of Great Britain in introducing marriage equality.
Above all, he said, he wished to offer practical Brexit solutions where none have been coming from Mrs May or her team of negotiators…even though the clock is ticking and runs out in March 2019. Those “sensible, pragmatic” suggestions included Britain remaining part of the European customs union and the single market or creating new UK-EU replacements.
“If the United Kingdom does not want to stay in the customs union, perhaps there can be an EU-UK customs union.
“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.
“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 these things are worked out. This is the space in which agreements are made. These are the practical solutions I am proposing,” he said.
He said the inevitable fallout from Britain exiting the EU could be softened “for all of us” as he suggested three possibilities: an EU-UK customs union like that between the EU and Turkey; the UK rejoining the European Free Trade Association whose members include Norway and Switzerland; and a possible transition period while Brexit problems were worked out.
He said the “advocates of a hard Brexit” had fourteen months to come up with their own proposals and didn’t deliver and now time is running out.
“If they cannot, and I believe they cannot, we can then talk meaningfully about solutions that might work for all of us,” he said. “If they can’t come up with solutions, well then maybe they might talk about mine,” he said.
And, he added in a pointed remark aimed at the British government’s negotiators, “these solutions will not be offered, they will have to be asked for.”
He said that he had spoken to the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and it was clear that these are the kind of suggestions those home nations wanted. But because devolution is still deadlocked in Northern Ireland there is no Executive and no Assembly with no-one to speak on behalf of voters there, he said.
“We need an answer to the question, of who we — and others in Europe — talk to in Belfast.
“Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people? Time is running out and I fear there will be no extra time allowed,” he said.
In a determinedly conciliatory, cross-community speech that celebrated all Irish identities and traditions on the island he was unequivocal that the modern Irish identity is only enhanced and strengthened by its membership of the EU.
It was part of what makes Ireland a much more socially progressive society and modern economy, he said. He was dismissive of vague suggestions emanating from Britain’s Brexit negotiators and the DUP that there could be a “technological solution” to the problems arising at Ireland’s Northern Border once the UK has left the EU. And he made clear that it would be down to Ireland and 26 other member states to decide if “sufficient progress” has been made on key issues before Brexit negotiations can progress.
These three key issues are the rights of EU citizens’ in the UK, how much the UK must pay to settle it accounts, and Ireland’s border.
“The Brexit negotiations are well underway in Brussels. And, to quote Michel Barnier, the clock is ticking. Every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by the outcome – 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.
“In October, I will sit around the European Council table with 26 other Prime Ministers and we will decide together whether sufficient progress has been made on three key issues to allow the Brexit negotiations to proceed to the next phase.
“Those three key issues are citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and issues relating to Ireland. It will be a historic meeting for this island. It is my fervent hope that progress will have been made, but I do not underestimate the challenges we face.
“For our part, the Irish Government will discharge our responsibilities as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. We will do all we can, in Brussels, in London and in Dublin, to achieve the best outcome for everyone on this island – to protect our peace, our freedom, our rights, and our prosperity,” said Mr Varadkar.
There will be no automatic approval or rubber stamping of a trade agreement unless the UK presents workable proposals for the Border, he warned.
“In October I will sit around the European Council table with 26 other prime ministers and we will decide together whether sufficient progress has been made on three key issues to allow the Brexit negotiations to proceed.
“It is my fervent hope that progress will have been made, but I do not underestimate the challenge.” Afterwards, the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest political party which campaigned for Brexit – although most Northern Irish voters opted for ‘Remain’ – said Mr Varadkar’s references to a “hard Brexit” and “hard Brexiteers” were unhelpful.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party formally agreed to prop up Theresa May’s minority Tory government, said Mr Varadkar had used “pejorative language” and had been “incoherent”.
She said she and her party want the UK out of the Single Market and Customs Union but also wanted “practical solutions” although did not say what these might be.