Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned Boris Johnson today that he is heading for a Brexit collision course, telling the new British Prime Minister in a phone call that the EU will not meet his central demands for a new Brexit deal.
In a long-awaited phone conversation between the pair, Mr Varadkar told his opposite number that the EU would stand by Dublin in its efforts to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Mr Johnson had not spoken to Mr Varadkar since his arrival in Downing Street last Wednesday, breaking with years of etiquette and convention, in a sign of the tensions were flaring over Johnson’s uncompromising Brexit stance.
Mr Johnson wants to “abolish” the backstop provision in the EU withdrawal treaty, an insurance policy intended to prevent the return of a physical border on the island of Ireland.
“The Taoiseach explained that the EU was united in its view that the withdrawal agreement could not be reopened,” Mr Varadkar’s office said after the call.
Mr Varadkar reminded Mr Johnson, whose government relies on the support of the Democratic Unionist party for its survival, of the requirement under the Good Friday Agreement to act honestly in their diplomacy in Northern Ireland.
The Taoiseach’s office recalled how the agreement required Britain “to exercise power with rigorous impartiality”, respecting “rights, equality, parity of esteem and just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities”.
This comes as the leader of the US Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has repeated her threat to block any US-UK trade deal if a ‘no deal’ Brexit brings a ‘hard’ border to Northern Ireland.
Ms Pelosi is one of the most powerful political players in US politics.
New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would not meet the European Council – the EU heads of government – until it had agreed in advance to scrap the Withdrawal Agreement of December 2017 and its Northern Ireland backstop.
Downing Street confirmed today that Mr Johnson, after days of avoiding contact, breaking with years of etiquette and convention, spoke with his Irish opposite number Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Tuesday morning.
It is seen as positioning himself and his government for crashing out of the EU without a deal on 31 October, blaming the EU and Ireland for intransigence, and clearing the way for him to call a General Election – if he does not do so before then.
Ireland’s chief Brexit negotiator, Tanaiste and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said of Mr Johnson’s remarks last week:
“The statements of the British Prime Minister yesterday in the House of Commons were very unhelpful to this process.
“He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the European Union and with Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations, and I think only he can answer the question as to why he is doing that.”
Mr Johnson has said the UK can overcome the domestic hit from leaving the biggest single market in the world with a new UK-US trade deal promised by President Trump.
At the weekend President Trump said he had spoken to Mr Johnson by phone and supported an “ambitious trade agreement” with the UK after Brexit.
He claimed the country is “actually impeded by the relationship with the European Union” and predicted, “I think we can do three to four, five times what we’re doing.”
But Speaker Pelosi, in a special address, told the Irish parliament in April this year that her Democratic Party would not hesitate to block such a trade deal if the UK sought to renege on the Good Friday Agreement or create a hard border in Northern Ireland.
In the past week, she repeated that ultimatum and was supported by an influential Washington committee of Democrats, Republicans, former Ambassadors and security advisers.
Ms Pelosi said she, and her party, will veto any trade deal outside the current Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May but rejected three times by MPs in the Commons:
“We made it clear in our conversations with senior members of the Conservative Party earlier this year that there should be no return to a hard border on the island.
“That position has not changed. Any trade deal between the US and Great Britain would have to be cognisant of that.”
Ms Pelosi followed up her visit to Ireland and Britain earlier this year by encouraging a committee of Democrats, Republicans and former diplomats set up to protect the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
The group includes five former US ambassadors, two former US state governors and former US President Bill Clinton’s former foreign policy adviser Nancy Soderberg.
It sent a letter to new Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, formerly Theresa May’s Chief Whip who was responsible for ensuring DUP support to keep her minority government in power, in which it expressed deep concern at Mr Johnson’s demand that the backstop – originally included at British insistence – be removed from the 600-page Withdrawal Agreement.
The letter, whose contents were published in Irish newspapers in the past few days said the US, which played a pivotal role in securing the 1998 agreement, remains engaged and “deeply committed” to protecting and sustaining its core principles.
It continued: “We remain deeply concerned given the new prime minister’s recent statement in the Commons that there can be no Irish backstop in the withdrawal agreement, even one with a time limit.
“We view the belief that alternative arrangements can easily solve the problem of the Irish Border with a healthy scepticism as do many experts.”
“Whatever the future direction of the Brexit process we reiterate that the Irish Border must remain open and seamless so that we can maintain the peace that we all have worked so hard to achieve together.”
At the same time, the Embassy of Ireland here in the UK took the unusual step of refuting as “utter fiction” a Daily Mail claim that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay travelled to Dublin to “read…the riot act” to “pipsqueak” Mr Varadkar who was referred to as “Lenny Verruca”.
In a statement, the embassy said: “The UK media regularly features a lot of commentary and opinion in relation to Brexit and Ireland. Regrettably, some of what is printed and said can be inaccurate in detail and disappointing in tone. To respond publicly on every occasion may only confer a recognition that an offending piece does not warrant.”