Is Varadkar really thinking about calling a halt to Brexit talks?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Leo Varadkar would love to fight a “Brexit election”, styling himself as “the man who stood up to Britain”. And his party’s opinion polling, as part of preparations for the big one, includes questions about an election in the wake of tough Brexit talks.

The ‘Sunday Independent’ revealed the scale of the polling being conducted by Red C pollsters on behalf of the Fine Gael. One question addresses the prospect of Mr Varadkar seeking to halt Brexit negotiations pending more progress being made on the Border. If the main governing party is posing such a question, could it mean it is contemplating this major play?

The problem with talking up deadlines is that you’re stuck with them. The Taoiseach’s insistence that the EU leaders’ summit in nine days’ time was D-day for a settlement on the Irish Border arrangements is a classic example.

The Border issue will drift on until another leaders’ summit in October, and without even progress on the Government’s fallback demand of progress.

In theory, the Taoiseach can try to stall things until the Border issue is singled out and resolved, as he heads to the summit on Thursday week. In practice, there are just too many big-picture political reasons why he will do no such thing. He would alienate key EU allies for one thing, and would give credence to persistent fears that the UK could “crash out” of the EU without a deal, and with dire consequences for Ireland.

Mr Varadkar and his key Brexit lieutenant Simon Coveney continue to publicly insist the so-called “backstop” still stands. That’s a deal on keeping Northern Ireland’s customs rules and product standards mimicking those of the Republic and the rest of the EU after Brexit. The reality is something different as UK Prime Minister Theresa May cannot sell the backstop in London and it enrages the DUP, on which her minority government depends.

Mr Varadkar presented this backstop deal to the nation as “bulletproof” on December 8 last. Since then, EU draft legislation to give effect to the backstop has been rejected after the event by London. And a partial attempt by London to frame counter-proposals has been rejected by Brussels.

Allowing things drift on until October does give credence to warnings from people like former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who has attended dozens of summits, including some he chaired himself. Mr Ahern foresees a situation in October where vast amounts of other Brexit issues are squared away, and suddenly pressure comes on Ireland to scale down its demands for the greater good of 26 other member states.

On this point, the Taoiseach tends to go all technical, correctly pointing out that the Brexit negotiations are not happening at the EU leaders’ summit table. Well, they are not for now – but they probably will be at the end of the end. But for now the only thing the Government can do is continue its lobbying effort at all levels. Mr Varadkar must lay down a very strong marker again in nine days’ time in Brussels – he must make it clear that Ireland’s needs in the wake of Brexit remain special and unchanged.

He has a golden opportunity to do just that this week when EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker visit Ireland. Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan plans to bring Mr Juncker to Croke Park to see the EU’s largest independent and amateur sports stadium.

Preparations for this summit come as Mrs May resumes her “political ping-pong”, trying to avoid the opposition of pro- and anti-EU factions in her own cabinet. In Brussels, it is still believed Mrs May will table a new set of proposals to address the Border, customs and trade, in hopefully calmer times over the summer recess. For now, the next move in this saga still rests in London.

Irish Independent

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