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Did Varadkar worry that the EU would put pressure on him? 'It did cross my mind'

In an attempt to comfort unionists, Varadkar said “the queen will still be the queen; the pound will still be the pound”.

Image: Stefan Rousseau

Gráinne Ní Aodha reports from Brussels 

LEO VARADKAR HAS said that in the two years that he has been Taoiseach, it had crossed his mind that he could get a phone call in the middle of the night, asking him to compromise in order to secure a Brexit deal.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, the Taoiseach said: “Well I’ll be very frank with you, in dealing with this issue for over two years, it always crossed my mind that that might arise, that someday that I would get that phone call or find myself late at night being put under pressure from other European leaders and other European countries to compromise.

But as things went on, the more and more I realised that that wasn’t going to be the case, that that was a concern that we didn’t need to have (sic). There has been enormous solidarity for Ireland from our European partners from the institutions and also from the member states. And this was really born out of a belief that being a member is advantageous.

“And it certainly was never an anti-British thing, but of course if one country is leaving and another staying, there would be solidarity among the 27 and the European family.

Referring to European leaders as “the 27 muskateers, all for one and one for all”,  the Taoiseach added: “When it sticks together it’s very powerful – I think we demonstrated that when it comes to Brexit, the way the 27 have stuck together and defended each other’s interests.”

He said that he hoped and expected that “this should continue as we enter other negotiations, whether it’s with Turkey, whether it’s with the United States or China into the future, and even if we get past this next phase of Brexit – Brexit isn’t over”. 

The queen will still be the queen

When asked what message he would have for unionists, who feared this deal damaged Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom, Varadkar replied that there is already a difference in the legal system, education system, and laws and rules.

“The fact that there may be differences in Northern Ireland, doesn’t undermine the constitutional position, in my view,” he said.

He continued:

If this agreement is ratified and if it is fully implemented, the queen will still be the queen; the pound will still be the pound; people will still post letters in Royal Mail red letterboxes. Northern Ireland will still be part of the United Kingdom.

The Taoiseach also acknowledged that the UK would become a competitor of Ireland’s but said that there were other countries where “we’re competitors, and also partners”.

“We’re very strong partners with the Netherlands, yet we’re forever competing for business with Amsterdam, so it’s possible to be both competitor and partner at the same time.” 

The backstop

Leo Varadkar also explained that the backstop was a mechanism that was “never intended for use” and that would apply temporarily unless and until it was superseded by alternative arrangements.

“What we have now is a new solution, one that is very likely to be used, and one that is more permanent, but essentially what we are saying – and we have accepted along the way that this would be an outcome that we would accept – is that we would allow people of Northern Ireland and their democratic representatives, their members their Assembly to determine their future.”

The arrangements keep Northern Ireland in the UK’s customs territory, meaning they would avail of any new UK trade deals, but would also be aligned to the EU’s Customs Union.

In practice, this would mean that if goods are sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, no tariffs apply. If goods are sent from GB through Northern Ireland to Ireland, tariffs will apply, but they will be collected at ports and airports – effectively putting a customs border along the Irish Sea. For goods sent from Ireland to Northern Ireland, there would be no tariffs, and for goods travelling from Ireland through Northern Ireland to Great Britain, there would be tariffs collected at the Irish Sea customs border.

If the Withdrawal Agreement is passed by the House of Commons, this arrangement will come into effect at the end of the transition period, which will end in December 2020 (or December 2022 if it’s extended). Four years after that, the Northern Ireland Assembly will get a vote on whether to keep this customs arrangement, or default to WTO rules.

“Essentially what this new arrangement,” Varadkar said, “this new solution allows is for the Northern Ireland Assembly after four years to decide whether or not it wants to continue with these arrangements.

“So there is of course an outside chance that at some point in the latter part of the next decade… [an] assembly might decide to opt out of alignment, opt out of the single electricity market, opt out of the new customs arrangement.

But I’m confident that’s not going to happen, because I think that people in Northern Ireland, businesses in the Northern Ireland, farmers in Northern Ireland are going to see and experience the benefits of this arrangement.

“But if there’s a risk we’re taking, the risk we’re taking is one on democracy and saying to people in Northern Ireland that you determine your future and this is something I can stand over.” 

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