Taoiseach Leo Varadkar claimed a “soft” Brexit could strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom as he set out his vision for the EU’s relationship with the UK post-exit.
Mr Varadkar repeated his hope that Brexit would not ultimately happen - suggesting a second referendum might deliver a different outcome - but he said, if it did proceed, it would be in no one’s interests to create trading barriers.
The Fine Gael leader said if Brexit resulted in the UK also exiting the Customs Union and Single Market, he would like to see a bilateral EU-UK customs union and a deep free trade arrangement with the UK, potentially through the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), that includes non-EU countries such as Iceland and Norway.
“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, of which it was a member prior to accession.
“And 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. “
On his first visit north since his election in June, Mr Varadkar said a “hard” Brexit would require a “unique solution” for Northern Ireland.
But he added: “I would hope Unionist parties for example, who would be keen to preserve and protect the Union, would see how it is much easier to do that if in fact the United Kingdom stays in the Customs Union and stays in the Single Market because that takes away any need for any sort special arrangement or bespoke solution for Northern Ireland at all.”
Mr Varadkar again moved to dispel the suggestion that the Irish government favoured making the Irish Sea the EU/UK border.
“It’s not a proposal that I am tabling and I wouldn’t like us to be in that position,” he said.
He urged continued UK membership of the Customs Union but said, if that did not happen, he would like to see a bilateral EU/UK customs union.
“After all, we have one with Turkey. Surely we can have one with the United Kingdom?”