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Leo Varadkar says those that wanted Brexit 'have been chasing unicorns for a long time'

Varadkar said there is a “rich irony” that the UK’s tariff proposals intend to treat Northern Ireland differently to Great Britain.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media in Washington DC today
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media in Washington DC today
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

Christina Finn reports from Washington DC

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said those that advocated for Brexit “have been chasing unicorns for a very long time”.

Speaking for the first time since yesterday’s Brexit Westminster vote, Varadkar said there is a “rich irony” that the UK’s tariff proposals intend to treat Northern Ireland differently to Great Britain.

Addressing the media at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC today where he is kicking of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, Varadkar was asked about the letter sent by a little girl to Donald Tusk saying Britain and the EU “should be friends”. The letter was finished with a drawing of a unicorn.

‘Chasing unicorns’

“I think a lot of people that advocated unicorns have been chasing unicorns for a very long time and as we head into the next few weeks it should be patently obvious to everyone that unicorns only exist in fairytales,” said Varadkar.

He added:

“I would say to people that advocate Brexit, is this really what you want?

“Protectionism, tariffs, borders, restrictions on trade, is this what Brexit was really all about?”

He said for those who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement on the basis that they feared Northern Ireland might be treated differently as a result of the backstop, “it must be evident to them now that it’s the UK Government’s intention to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom and to do so within the next few months”.

Varadkar added:

The UK’s proposals would not be workable for a very long time.

He said “inevitably Northern Ireland would become a back door to the single market”.

Varadkar said this would result in checks being needed at Northern Ireland’s ports in a matter of months.

Tariffs

Today, the UK government announced that there will be no new checks or controls on goods moving from Ireland to Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

No import tariffs will apply to such goods in the immediate aftermath of a 29 March exit.

While there will be no tariffs imposed by the UK on goods moving across the land border into Northern Ireland, tariffs will also not be applied to around 87% – up from 80% at present – of imports in a no-deal Brexit to the rest of the UK under a temporary scheme.

The tariffs on various goods where they will be applied are presented by the UK government as a percentage of the “most favoured nation” (MFN) – this is the tariff imposed by the EU on imports from countries that they do not have a free trade agreement with.

If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, it will become one of these countries. Currently, no tariffs are paid on the import of goods from Ireland into mainland UK, for example, but that would change in a no-deal.

The Taoiseach was also asked if the proposals on tariffs will effectively create a smugglers paradise in Northern Ireland.

In his response, Varadkar said what will happen is European Law and European Customs code will apply so the common external tariff will apply to any goods exported from the United Kingdom to the European Union.

“And obviously that will have a severe impact on the British economy and on the Northern Ireland economy in particular. That’s why you’ve seen the reaction today from British business, from British farmers, Northern Ireland business, Northern Ireland farmers very concerned about what the UK is proposing and the impact that it’s going to have on their economy,” he said.

In terms of what may happen in Northern Ireland I personally don’t think that the UK government’s proposals would be workable for very long. They propose to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom in a few weeks time.
Let’s not forget one of the big objections to the backstop was that that might happen in a few years time. The UK government is proposing to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK in a few weeks time and inevitably it would mean that Northern Ireland would become a backdoor to the European Single Market and I think within a matter of months that would lead to the need for checks at Northern Ireland’s ports.
So those who oppose the agreement may find that something very akin to the backstop is applied by the UK government in only a few weeks time

As more votes go on this evening, does the Taoiseach think the deal is dead?

“That’s still a matter for Westminster. It’s possible that there will be a future vote, and possible that they may yet ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.

“But from the point of Ireland, and the point of view of the European Union, we really went the extra mile in the last couple of days to try to get the withdrawal agreement over the line – to try to give the British government and the British parliament the assurances that they needed. That failed, that didn’t work, and we have no confidence now that any further assurances would work either,” he said, adding:

“So there is no point in the British government asking for changes or further concessions – because they have demonstrated twice now that they are unable to get an agreement, once made, over the line. So there is no point in asking for further concessions.”

Extending Article 50 

While the Irish government has always been open to an extension to Article 50 which would push out Brexit, the Taoiseach said today there has to be a reason for drawing it out.

“I think an extension has to have a purpose. That’s really what we need to hear from London in the next couple of days after they have their various votes today and tomorrow and perhaps if there are more votes too.

“If there is an extension, what’s the point to it. We don’t want a rolling cliff edge where tough decisions that they have to make get put off until the end of June, the end of July or September. That is not going to work for anyone,” he said.

When asked what his preference would be, he said it would depend what the purpose of the extension is.

St Patrick’s Day

While Brexit is dominating the news back home, the Taoiseach has a jam-packed week of events in the US.

Varadkar said there “is a real understanding of the unique nature of Northern Ireland, the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the need to protect the peace in Northern Ireland and how that is so much more important than any economic considerations. That is well understood.

“People mightn’t understand the details of withdrawal agreements and backstop and European law and all of those things, but they do understand the Good Friday Agreement is paramount. That we must have on the island of Ireland, free movement of people and free trade and protection of the peace process”

Will he be asking US President Donald trump for any help with Brexit. 

“Certainly if the president is open to wanting a Special Envoy to Northern Ireland that would be very welcome. We know historically that when the United States has taken an interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland it has helped bring peace to conclusion so that will certainly be welcome.

“We’re not asking anyone here in America to take sides between the UK and the European Union and Ireland. We know they will want to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK into the future and we also want to negotiate a free trade agreement between the US and the EU and would like to do that before there is any agreement with the UK, but we will be saying to them of course that the Good Friday Agreement has to be paramount, that the peace process has to be paramount.

He said the US was so involved in making the Good Friday agreement possible and in helping to bring about peace in Northern Ireland.

“What we’ll be saying to them of course that we would ask that no trade deal that is done with the UK should ever undermine the peace process,” he concluded. 

TheJournal.ie’s Political Correspondent Christina Finn will be bringing you all the latest updates from Leo Varadkar’s visit to Washington DC this week, including his meeting with US President Donald Trump on Thursday.

Stay up-to-date by following @christinafinn8@TJ_Politics  and TheJournal.ie’s Facebook page

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