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Taoiseach wants Brexit put on the agenda of EU leaders meeting in September

Theresa May has convened her Cabinet today in desperate bid to quell rebellion within her party.

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has asked for Brexit to be put on the agenda of a meeting of EU leaders in Salzburg this September.

Reacting to events in London yesterday, where UK Prime Minister Theresa May lost Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis from her Cabinet, Varadkar said in the Dáil this afternoon that it is very much an “internal matter” for the British Government.

Varadkar said he discussed the possibility of upgrading the Austrian summit in September to a formal summit on Article 50 with the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz when he was here last weekend.

Varadkar said the 28 heads of State are meeting in Salzburg on 20 September, which would be an opportune time to discuss Irish border issues. However, he said a decision will be made closer to the time.

He said he looks forward to reading the UK government’s White Paper which May is due to publish this week. He understands it will run to about 100-pages long, and said it will provide the much-wanted detail on how the UK sees its relationship with Europe working in the future.

Eager for there to be progress made, the Taoiseach said:

“If the United Kingdom was able to relax from some of its red lines, then the European Union could be flexible too. I think we are now entering into that space.”

He added:

I have always said the best option and the best way for us to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland is through what we have been calling for quite some time option A, which is the future relationship, rather than option C, which is the backstop.
It has always been our view that the best solution is one that would be an all-encompassing solution involving the United Kingdom staying very close to the European Union and, therefore, Ireland and, therefore, negating the need or even possibility of a hard border on our island.
Nonetheless we will still need a backstop.  It will not be possible to negotiate the final stages treaty, that is the new treaty between the UK and the EU, by October.  At best we will have a political declaration.  That treaty will have to be ratified not just by this Parliament but by the Parliament of every member state in the European Union.

Reacting to the news that Johnson had resigned from the UK Cabinet in protest, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said Boris Johnson is now running away from the mess that he helped create, adding that he will be “no great loss”.

Conservative Party fall-out

Today, May convened her cabinet in an attempt to keep control of her Conservative party in the wake of the high level resignations from the party yesterday.

Johnson warned in his letter of resignation to May that Britain was headed for the “status of colony” of the EU after it leaves in March, and said the Brexit “dream is dying”.

May responded that she was “sorry and a little surprised” by his decision but said she accepted it was necessary “if you are not able to provide the support we need to secure this deal in the interests of the United Kingdom”.

She replaced him with Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, a Japanese-speaking former entrepreneur who unlike Johnson voted for Britain to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum.

Johnson’s dramatic resignation followed those of Davis and his deputy Steve Baker overnight over May’s plans to keep Britain economically close to the bloc.

Two parliamentary private secretaries — MPs who act as assistants to ministers — also quit their posts.

The departures, hailed by eurosceptic MPs in the ruling Conservative party, triggered speculation that May could face an imminent leadership contest.

But, appearing in the House of Commons, a confident-sounding Maydefended her Brexit proposals.

“This is not a betrayal,” she responded to one of several eurosceptic Conservative MPs who complained, insisting it was “the right Brexit deal for Britain”.

She later spoke to Conservative MPs in a closed-door meeting at which she reportedly received broad support.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, an influential Brexit hardliner, was quoted as saying that he would vote against May’s proposals but would support her in any confidence vote.

Rees-Mogg said he expected May to remain in office at least until the official date of Brexit next year.

But another Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns said she believed May’s time as prime minister was “over”.

Davis himself said it would be “wrong” for his departure to trigger a major party rebellion against May.

‘Giving too much away’

May announced on Friday that her cabinet had finally agreed to a plan to follow EU rules for trade in goods, raising hopes that long-stalled talks with the bloc could progress.

The truce did not last the weekend after Davis quit on Sunday night, warning that Britain was “giving too much away too easily” in Brexit talks.

On Monday, when Johnson was supposed to be hosting a summit on the Western Balkans, Downing Street announced he had also gone.

The timing could not be worse, as Britain faces a fresh diplomatic row with Russia over a nerve agent attack, and ahead of US President Donald Trump’s visit this week.

Brexit negotiations with Brussels are also expected to resume next week.

Downing Street swiftly appointed eurosceptic housing minister Dominic Raab to Davis’s job, and then later named Hunt as Johnson’s successor.

May said she now wanted to advance the Brexit talks, saying she had briefed EU leaders on her plan in recent days and received a “positive reaction”.

May has been balancing competing factions in her party for years, but with the clock ticking down to Brexit, had to make a choice.

Britain Brexit Pro-EU supporter Steve Bray holds placards on Abingdon Green across the road from the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday. Source: Matt Dunham via PA

Her proposal would see Britain adopt EU rules for trade in goods after Brexit, but maintain flexibility for its key services sector and end freedom of movement.

Brussels has repeatedly warned it will not accept “cherry-picking” of elements of its single market and it remains to be seen what the response will be in Brussels.

Following Monday’s resignations, EU President Donald Tusk tweeted: “Politicians come and go but the problems they have created for people remain.”

“I can only regret that the idea of Brexit has not left with Davis and Johnson. But… who knows?,” he added, wondering if Britain might reject the divorce.

‘Reluctant conscript’

But many eurosceptic MPs are outraged at May’s plan, and Davis’s resignation letter was also scathing.

May’s proposals for a “common rulebook” on goods “hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU”, he said.

Davis said his job required “an enthusiastic believer in your approach, and not merely a reluctant conscript”.

Speaking to BBC radio on Monday, he said he hoped Britain would “resist very strongly any attempt to get any further concessions”.

As head of the Brexit ministry, Davis was the public face of Britain’s negotiating team but in reality has been overshadowed for months by Mayand her aides.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the cabinet ministers had “jumped the sinking ship”.

“For the good of this country and its people, the government needs to get its act together and do it quickly and if it can’t, make way for those who can,” he said.

© – AFP, 2018 with reporting by Christina Finn

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