Irish PM says he has escalated no-deal Brexit preparations

Ireland planning as seriously for no deal as for May’s agreement, says Leo Varadkar

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has said his country is preparing for a no-deal Brexit as seriously as it is for Theresa May’s deal and warned that the EU’s existing offer must not change.

In remarks that echoed EU comments earlier on Thursday rebuffing British hopes of further talks, Varadkar said European leaders were united behind the existing deal and that he and Angela Merkel had held a 40-minute call at her request.

“We’re happy to offer reassurances and guarantees to the UK, but not reassurances and guarantees that contradict or change what was agreed back in November,” he said.

The taoiseach said he had “given up speculating” on whether Britain would leave the EU without a deal but that Ireland’s contingency planning for a no-deal outcome would continue.

His warning that preparations for no deal have escalated will sharpen pressure on May before the crucial parliamentary vote in mid-January. The Irish agriculture minister, Michael Creed, said earlier on Thursday he would be asking for emergency EU aid for Irish farmers in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

May has been ringing EU leaders ahead of the Commons vote but has so far seen little movement as a result of her Christmas telephone diplomacy.

Varadkar said Irish and British government officials would be speaking by phone on Friday, Reuters reported. He said the calls would be followed up with “direct contact” between the two prime ministers as needed.

But a European commission spokeswoman said talks could not be reopened. “The deal that is on the table is the best and only deal possible and the EU27 leaders confirmed on 13 December [at an EU summit] in their conclusions that it will not be renegotiated,” she said. “As I understand for now, no further meetings are foreseen between the commission’s negotiators and the UK’s negotiators, as negotiations have indeed concluded.”

An EU source said nothing had happened regarding Brexit over the last 10 days, though May had spoken with the head of the European council, Donald Tusk, on Wednesday. The prime minister spoke to the German chancellor twice during the holiday period.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, does not appear to have been on the list for a Christmas phone call from May, but the commission spokeswoman said he was “always available to listen to Prime Minister May’s views with regards to the temporary nature of the backstop”.

The British government is pushing for further guarantees on the Irish backstop, the fallback plan to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. With only 85 days until Brexit, the last-ditch push for guarantees has intensified concern about the damaging effects of the UK crashing out without a deal.

Creed said Ireland’s demand for aid from Brussels in the event of no deal would be substantial. “You’re looking at hundreds of millions,” he told the Irish Independent. “Between the beef industry and the fishing industry we’re talking mega-money.”

EU law allows emergency aid for farmers affected by sudden market shocks; the EU released more than €1bn to help farmers cope with Russia’s 2014 ban on imports of EU produce. But officials said they would only respond to a formal request from the Irish government, if the UK left without a deal.

On Wednesday, the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the British government needed more certainty that the UK would not be trapped in the backstop indefinitely. “We’re not asking for anything new, but we are asking you to define what temporary means so we can have confidence we’re not going to be trapped in the customs union for ever,” Hunt said.

The EU’s reluctance to reopen talks is not just a holding line over the Christmas holidays but reflects the deeply held view among officials that the bloc has gone as far as it can in offering reassurance on the backstop.

At an EU summit in December, EU leaders agreed that the backstop would “apply temporarily unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement” to ensure that a hard border would be avoided. The text also stated that if the backstop were triggered, EU negotiators would use “best endeavours” to negotiate a replacement agreement.

EU officials say this document has significant legal weight because it is the formal conclusions of a European summit. None of them think that a different legal format – for example, depositing the text on the backstop at the United Nations – would make any difference to the chances of the Brexit withdrawal deal passing the House of Commons.

“There is a general frustration with the whole process. We have worked very hard for the last 18 months,” said one EU source. “We have compromised, we have done a lot to get this nailed down on time.”

EU leaders were said to be irritated by May’s remarks at the December summit that British MPs did not trust the EU.

Reflecting that mood, Juncker told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag last week that British MPs deeply distrusted the EU and the prime minister. He said the EU had no intention of trying to keep the UK inside the EU, adding: “All we want is clarity about our future relations and we respect the result of the referendum.”

In the interview he also said the EU would be ready to open talks on the future relationship with the UK “the very next day” after any positive vote by the UK parliament, not waiting until Brexit day on 29 March.

Meanwhile, May’s renewed attempts to woo the Democratic Unionist party have been rejected again after a lunch between the prime minister and Nigel Dodds, the party’s deputy leader.

A statement released by Dodds said May’s draft EU withdrawal agreement flew in the face of government commitments on Northern Ireland.

He emphasised the party’s concerns over the proposed backstop, saying: “No one wants a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic … With this clarity emerging in London, Dublin and Brussels, there is evidently no need for this aspect of the withdrawal agreement.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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