Leo Varadkar last night set out the possibility of a new Brexit deal if Boris Johnson was to alter Theresa May’s red lines – but warned that even if that happened, a deal is highly unlikely before October 31.
In an interview with the News Letter in Belfast yesterday – to be published in full in Thursday’s paper – the taoiseach also set out the possibility of the UK cancelling Brexit entirely by revoking Article 50 or of the UK asking for its departure from the EU to be delayed again.
But both of those options are expressly contrary to the prime minister’s firm commitment to implement Brexit, and to do so by October 31.
Mr Varadkar’s comments came as EU sources have reportedly indicated that they now believe that a no-deal Brexit is the most likely outcome of the protracted negotiation with the UK.
The DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson responded to Mr Varadkar’s three propositions by reprising Margaret Thatcher’s famous response to proposals for more European integration. Mr Wilson said that Mr Johnson should tell the taoiseach: “No, no, no.”
Mr Varadkar made clear that Ireland is not prepared to renegotiate the backstop – the insurance policy which it insists is crucial to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland but which unionists have overwhelmingly opposed because it would erect barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
When asked if no-deal was now the most likely outcome, Mr Varadkar said: “I think that as time goes on, it becomes more likely. I’m not sure at what point you say it becomes more than 50% likely or not – and I’m not sure what that necessarily achieves anyway because we’ve always been preparing for the possibility of no-deal, and been doing that for years now.
“But I’m certain it can be avoided.”
Mr Varadkar set out three means by which no-deal could be avoided: MPs ratifying an agreement with the EU, an extension to again delay Brexit “which is an option if it is put forward for a good reason” or “if parliament and the government were to decide to – and it would have to be their decision; it’s not my decision – to revoke article 50”.
He insisted that “if no-deal happens on October 31, it will be as a consequence of decision made in London, not one made in Brussels or Dublin”.
The taoiseach said that he “would be very keen to over the course of the next few weeks to actually sit down with Prime Minister Johnson and talk through with him how we got to this point because I think there’s a bit of an effort now to make out that the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, was an invention of the Dublin government or imposed by the European Union. That’s not the case.”
He added: “What I’d like to do is talk through how we got to that point. Our analysis is different – we ended up with the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop because of all the red lines that were drawn up by the British government.
“Now if we’re going back to square one and those red lines are being changed, then we’ve something to talk about.”
Theresa May’s key red lines were that the UK would leave the single market, would leave the customs union, would end free movement and would bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain.
However, playing down any hopes of even such a substantial shift by Mr Johnson leading to a sudden deal which would see the UK leave at the end of October, he said: “It’s very difficult to see how you could conclude a different agreement between now and October 31 when the last one took two years to negotiate.”
Pressed on whether, even in the event of Mr Johnson changing the UK’s red lines there could be a deal by October 31, he said: “I think it becomes extremely difficult. But again, October 31st is a deadline that was agreed between the EU and the UK.
“The European Union is saying that if there’s a good reason we can do a further extension.”
When asked if he knew what would happen at the Irish border on November 1 if the UK was to leave without a deal, Mr Varadkar said: “Well, I suppose that’s still something that we’re still trying to work out in our discussions with the European Commission.
“What will certainly happen is that if the UK leaves without a deal and reverts to the WTO rules, then yes, we will have to impose WTO rules ... that does involve tariffs on imports, both north-south and also east-west and it does involve businesses having to file customs forms and tax forms and so on.
“And we’ll have to have some form of checks somewhere. Obviously we don’t want to have them on the border and our preference would be to have them at the ports of entry, at business level and random checks too.”
When asked if businesses could at least have certainty that any checks will not be able to be imposed immediately and therefore trade will not halt on November 1, Mr Varadkar did not directly answer the question.
Pressed on when those checks would begin, he said: “If the UK decides to leave without a deal and reverts to WTO rules and leaves without a deal, it would happen immediately – that’s my understanding of the legal position anyway, and it’s not something that we want; it’s something that we want to avoid.
“But if that’s the decision that’s made ... you’d have the tariff barriers, which is cost, and you’d have all the other non-tariff barriers to trade as they call them – having to fill in all the forms, having to pre-declare and so on.”
He said that even a no-deal Brexit or a withdrawal agreement without the backstop would not bring certainty for businesses because it would be “just kicking the fundamental questions about the Irish border and about trade between the UK and Ireland into the implementation phase or the transition phase ... so you end up with another two or three years of business uncertainty and that’s not a desirable outcome”.
Responding to the argument often made by many Brexiteers and unionists that if the UK and Ireland agreed not to erect a hard border then that can be avoided, Mr Varadkar alluded to his country’s willingness to ensure that border checks take place, saying that “from our side we would have to uphold the integrity of the single market and the customs union”.
He also said that “the idea that the UK could withdraw from the European Union, join the WTO and then the first thing the UK would do would be to break the WTO rules – it’s not a basis for a future trade policy or free trade agreements with anybody, really.”