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Brexit: Varadkar and May to work on plan for frictionless Irish border

Theresa May and Leo Varadkar
Theresa May and Leo Varadkar, who said achieving such an arrangement was the ‘tricky bit’ in Brexit talks. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Theresa May and Leo Varadkar are to work together to come up with a new plan on how to achieve a frictionless Irish border after Brexit that does not involve the EU demanding Northern Ireland stays in the customs union and single market.

But speaking to reporters after bilateral talks in Belfast, the taoiseach admitted that achieving this was the “tricky bit” in Brexit talks.

“The two governments are very much of the view that the agreement that was made back in December stands,” Varadkar said.

He was speaking days after Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, said it “was important to tell the truth” and that the UK’s stated intent to leave the customs union and single market meant border checks would be “unavoidable”.

Brussels and London sealed a deal on the Irish border in December with three options: an overall agreement that would allow frictionless borders between the UK and all its frontiers with the EU, a bespoke arrangement for Ireland, and in the event of a no-deal scenario or hard Brexit, a guarantee of “full alignment” north and south of the border, which would effectively mean Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and single market.

Barnier confirmed the wording for the third option was being drafted for the legally binding withdrawal agreement that the UK must reach in order to move to talks about a transition period or the future relationship.

Varadkar said: “We both prefer option A as the best option by which we can avoid any new barriers [on the] border in Ireland, and that is through a comprehensive customs and trade agreement involving Britain and Ireland.

“That is the best way we can avoid any new barriers, north and south, and also east and west, and we have agreed to work together at official levels to see if we can explore solutions to see how that can be achieved in the coming weeks and months.

“The best solution is not ‘backstop’, as I call it, [or] the ‘last resort’, as Theresa May calls it, but option A, ensuring we can have a new relationship between [the] UK and the EU.”

Sources in Dublin have expressed concern that Brexiters in the Conservative party are trying to persuade May to row back on her commitment to the deal agreed in December that allowed for “full regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Britain’s first position paper on the Irish border, published last August, proposed customs exemptions for small businesses and preclearance for large traders as a way of avoiding “physical border infrastructure and border posts” or electronic surveillance.

“We think they are going back to the August position,” one Dublin source said.

Opponents to the August paper said the proposals did not go far enough and failed to take account of 142 cross-border issues such as healthcare, car insurance and agrifood standards that are affected by EU legislation and the Good Friday agreement.

Michael D’Arcy, an Irish finance minister, said: “The UK government has given the undertaking and their word in December on a number of issues and they will be expected to honour that. The knew when they gave that commitment that the withdrawal bill must reflect that full regulatory alignment.”

Neale Richmond, an Irish senator, said: “We are wondering why are we going back to where we were at some months ago. [Those negotiations] are not going to be reopened and the internal machinations of the Tory party is a bit of a sideshow.”

This article titled "Brexit: Varadkar and May to work on plan for frictionless Irish border" was written by Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent, for The Guardian on Monday 12 February 2018 07.31pm

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