Varadkar throws a spanner in Brexit works

Varadkar throws a spanner in Brexit works

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Friday was supposed to be about money, money, money. And not just because the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has come to Sweden, the birthplace of ABBA.

We’d been told that she would make a signal which would placate the EU: that the British government would be willing to offer to settle the Brexit bill once and for all.

In so doing, the EU in exchange would finally agree to move beyond the first phase of Brexit talks (yes we’re still on phase one) and move onto phase two, the future trading relationship.

That isn’t how the day worked out. Instead the PM became dogged by an issue much closer to home: Ireland.

:: Varadkar: Britain asking for too much in Brexit negotiations

Theresa May arrives to attend the European Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden
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The media had been told Theresa May would make a signal which would placate the EU

Money isn’t the only issue about which the PM must satisfy her EU partners by the crucial December European Council deadline.

There are two more: one on citizens’ rights (for those British who live in the EU and vice versa) and the other on the thorny issue of the Irish border. The Irish government has made it clear that no Brexit outcome which in any way introduces any element of a hard border on the island of Ireland is acceptable to them.

The Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, talking to me at the close of the summit, has thrown a spanner in the Brexit works by saying that far from being close to a deal on the Irish border, the UK “isn’t even close”.

Ireland's Prime minister Leo Varadkar (L) and Britain's Prime minister Theresa May (R) talk ahead a discussion session during the European Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden
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Theresa May talks to her Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar (L)

“I can’t say in any honesty that it’s close, either on the Irish issue of the financial settlement,” he said.

Mr Varadkar went on: “Brexit is a British policy, it’s also one that Britain has imposed on the rest of Europe.

“It’s causing enormous difficulties for the whole of Europe and Ireland in particular and to me it seems that after 40 years of marriage, most of them good, Britain wants a divorce and wants an open relationship that day after.”

This will be greeted with dismay in Downing Street.



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The Irish Prime Minister went on to say that so dissatisfied was he with the British government’s ideas on the Irish question to date that he wanted nothing short of a full legal guarantee from the British government to ensure that no hard border would take effect.

The problem with that is that the only way to really ensure there is no hard border at all would be for the UK to remain in the customs union and probably the single market too.

That would solve the Irish question for Theresa May but it would throw up a thousand others, mainly from her own backbenchers, for whom the price of continued customs union and single market membership would be far too high.


Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson looks on during a meeting with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney at Iveagh House in Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday November 17, 2017. See PA story POLITICS Johnson. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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For the Prime Minister it must feel she’s playing Brexit whack a mole. Every time she beats one problem, a few more appear.

But she can’t ignore the Irish problem. Because just like the other 26 EU countries, they have the power of veto; over both the final EU deal and whether or not Britain can pass onto the next stage of negotiations.

And so it comes to pass that Brexit, where we were meant to take back control, has thrown up a unique historical conundrum.

For the first time in the seven or eight century relationship between Britain and Ireland, the Irish exercise power over its larger neighbour.

As the Irish PM told me: “We’re negotiating with the strength of 27 states, 26 member states behind us, 400 million people. We’re in a very strong position here.”


EU flag flies outside the European Commission in Brussels

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They’re determined to use that power and make Mrs May’s life that bit harder.

And for my money the Irish problem is much worse than the financial one.

Ultimately if the difference is 10 billion or 20 or 50, the UK will find the money if it makes the difference. Britain is a £1.7trn economy, a few billion here or there is a rounding error.

The issues around culture, history and sectarianism between Irish north and south are far more intractable. You can’t write a cheque and make them go away. And Brexit brings them back into the open.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Irish question frequently made British governments and prime ministers fall. In the late 20th and early 21st the Europe question did the same.

Theresa May has to answer both. Before March 2019. Even she, Super Trouper or not, will find that a Herculean task.



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