Irish leader Leo Varadkar ‘reneged on secret Brexit compromise over Northern Ireland’, Number 10 claims as Boris Johnson prepares to fly to Dublin for last-ditch talks
- Leo Varadkar agreed to soften his position on the customs union, it is claimed
- The Irish leader came out swinging against Boris Johnson’s proposals last week
- The two leaders are expected to meet face-to-face in Dublin later this week
Irish leader Leo Varadkar left Boris Johnson’s plans for a Brexit deal in tatters by reneging on a secret compromise over Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
A Number 10 source said Mr Varadkar had agreed to soften his position on Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union if Mr Johnson agreed to keep the province in the single market.
The compromise was discussed on the sidelines of the United Nations meeting in New York last month, The Times reported.
British officials reportedly briefed their Irish counterparts on Mr Johnson’s plans in advance, hoping that Brussels would come around to a new deal if Dublin agreed to the proposals.
However, Mr Varadkar came out swinging against Mr Johnson’s proposed new deal when it was published last week, and hopes of an agreement are now hanging by a thread.
The Taoiseach said he did not ‘understand’ how customs checks between North and South could be avoided under Mr Johnson’s plans.
Mr Varadkar is expected to host the British PM on a last-ditch trip to Dublin this week as leaders scramble to find a replacement for the controversial Irish backstop just three weeks before the October 31 deadline.
The two leaders had a 40-minute telephone call yesterday after negotiations with Brussels went up in flames on a day of bitter recriminations.
‘Both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal. They hope to meet in person later this week,’ Downing Street said.
Irish leader Leo Varadkar (pictured right cycling with Danish PM Mette Frederiksen) left Boris Johnson’s plans for a Brexit deal in tatters by reneging on a secret compromise over Northern Ireland, it has been claimed
Mr Johnson (pictured in Downing Street yesterday) spoke to Leo Varadkar in a 40-minute call yesterday and the two leaders are expected to meet face-to-face later this week
Yesterday Mr Varadkar said Ireland and the EU would not accept an agreement at ‘any cost’.
‘There are some fundamental objectives that haven’t changed for the past three years and we need them guaranteed,’ he told RTE news.
‘I think it is going to be very difficult to secure an agreement by next week, quite frankly.
‘Essentially what the United Kingdom has done is repudiate the deal that we negotiated in good faith with Prime Minister May’s government over two years and sort of put half of that now back on the table and are saying, ‘That’s a concession’. And of course it isn’t really.’
Earlier an extraordinary public slanging match broke out following a series of No 10 briefings claiming German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made clear a deal was now ‘overwhelmingly unlikely’.
Number 10 sources said Mrs Merkel told the PM during a stormy 30-minute call that the province must remain within the EU’s customs union indefinitely.
But Mr Johnson retorted that her position meant a deal was ‘essentially impossible, not just now but ever’.
A Downing Street source said the call – which effectively reads the last rites on hopes for an agreement before next week’s EU summit – was a ‘clarifying moment’.
‘If this represents a new established position then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever,’ the No10 source said.
‘It also made clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.’
In response, EU council president Donald Tusk ranted on Twitter that the PM was risking the ‘security and interests of our people’ by refusing to make concessions.
The PM’s spokesman swiped back that he had ‘chosen to conduct these talks by personal telephone conversations with EU leaders, so I will refrain from commenting on social media.’
Jean-Claude Juncker said that if negotiations fail, ‘the explanation will be found in the British camp, adding: ‘The original sin is found on the islands and not on the continent’.
Mr Johnson met his Cabinet for crisis talks after the conversation yesterday morning.
The PM also hosted European Parliament president David Sassoli in Downing Street on Tuesday, but the MEP left saying ‘no progress’ had been made.
The meltdown with the EU appears to have been carefully choreographed, with Brexit minister Michael Gove unveiling a ‘preparedness’ paper on No Deal shortly after the Merkel bust-up emerged.
Last night Parliament was prorogued – for real this time – ahead of a Queen’s Speech next week.
Downing Street had already painted a grim picture of the consequences of rejecting the UK’s ‘fair and reasonable’ blueprint.
One source – claimed to be maverick strategist Dominic Cummings – explosively claimed that the government will make clear that any EU country supporting a delay to the October 31 Brexit deadline would be engaging in ‘hostile interference’ in British politics.
Boris Johnson (pictured visiting a hospital in Watford yesterday) is holding a crisis meeting as aides admit the Brexit talks are set to break down dramatically this week
In a crunch moment for negotiations, the PM and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured right in Berlin yesterday) clashed brutally in an early morning phone call. Donald Tusk (left) then accused Mr Johnson of a ‘stupid blame game’
EU council president Donald Tusk ranted on Twitter that the PM was risking the ‘security and interests of our people’ by refusing to make concessions
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss were among the ministers gathering in Downing Street today
Former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd claimed maverick No10 aide Dominic Cummings (pictured in Downing Street last week) was behind the explosive briefing
As the situation threatened to spiral out of control, DUP leader Arlene Foster raged: ‘The comments from the German Chancellor to the Prime Minister that Northern Ireland must remain in the EU Customs Union forever now reveal the real objective of Dublin and the European Union.
What happens next in the Brexit crisis?
Here is how the coming weeks could pan out:
October 14: Parliament is due to return for the Queen’s Speech.
October 17-18: A crunch EU summit in Brussels, but Mr Johnson now seems certain to boycott the event in protest at the bloc’s intransigence.
October 19: If there is no Brexit deal by this date Remainer legislation obliges the PM to beg the EU for an extension to avoid No Deal.
Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will only let Mr Johnson trigger an election after an extension has been secured.
If there is a deal, it will start being rushed through Parliament immediately.
October 31: The current deadline for the UK to leave the EU.
November/December: An election looks inevitable.
‘For the United Kingdom to be asked to leave a part of its sovereign territory in a foreign organisation of which the UK would no longer be a part and over which we would have no say whatsoever is beyond crazy. No UK Government could ever concede such a surrender.
‘The EU is not interested in a negotiated outcome at this time. Their position is the UK can only leave with a deal if it agrees a binding piece of international law permanently tying either the whole country or a part of it to the EU’s legal order over which it has no control.
‘The true purpose of the “backstop” is now in the open for an to see. Those who eagerly supported the backstop as the best of both worlds can now see the error of that assessment. It was neither temporary nor an insurance policy.’
Nigel Farage tweeted: ‘The EU were never going to negotiate in good faith. We simply have to leave with a clean break.’
But shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said the government was trying to ‘sabotage’ the talks.
‘This is yet another cynical attempt by No 10 to sabotage the negotiations,’ he said.
‘Boris Johnson will never take responsibility for his own failure to put forward a credible deal. His strategy from day one has been for a no-deal Brexit.
‘It is now more important than ever that parliament unites to prevent this reckless government crashing us out of the EU at the end of the month.’
While technical talks between officials continued yesterday, EU leaders have so far refused to hold face-to-face talks with Mr Johnson on his plan for replacing the controversial Irish backstop.
Mr Johnson needs a deal sorted by the end of October 17/18 if he is to avoid a dilemma over the Benn Act, which compels him to ask Brussels for an extension if he cannot get an agreement past MPs when he returns, a move he has ruled out taking.
Why is the EU’s Northern Ireland customs union demand so problematic?
Angela Merkel reportedly told Boris Johnson yesterday morning that there could only be a Brexit deal if the UK agreed that Northern Ireland will permanently stay in the EU’s customs union.
Ms Merkel apparently said that if Britain could not agree to that then a deal was ‘overwhelmingly unlikely’.
Meanwhile, a Number 10 source said that if that was the EU’s negotiating red line then a deal is ‘essentially impossible’.
The reason the customs demand is so significant, and potentially deal-wrecking, is that it would effectively mean Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK forever.
Under the plan put forward by Mr Johnson, Northern Ireland would stay in the EU’s single market for goods but would leave the customs union at the same time as the rest of Britain.
That would enable the province to benefit from any future UK trade deals.
If it was kept in the customs union while the rest of the UK left, then it would be excluded from those trade deals.
As a result, critics would argue that keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union would leave it out in the cold and isolated – technically still a part of the UK but on a very different path.
That is why Mr Johnson – or any other UK PM – would struggle to agree to such a proposal.
It would also prompt fury from Unionist politicians who are adamant that Ulster must not be treated differently to the rest of the UK.
Labour’s Brexit plan would see the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU and so the question of treating Northern Ireland differently would not arise.
The PM said yesterday that Brussels had been presented with ‘a big step forward, big advance, big compromise by the UK Government’, but complained the EU was not engaging with the details.
And in an incendiary briefing, a No10 source told the Spectator: ‘They think now that if there is another delay we will keep coming back with new proposals.
‘This won’t happen. We’ll either leave with No Deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with No Deal.’
The brutal assault – which former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd claimed came from Mr Cummings – emerged after Mr Johnson’s proposals hit a huge roadblock.
EU politicians have branded them a ‘joke’ and Emmanuel Macron set a deadline of Friday for the UK to make more concessions.
Upping the ante yesterday, Mr Tusk tweeted directly at Mr Johnson, saying: ‘What’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game.
‘At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people.
‘You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis (where are you going)?’
Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney also waded into the row, saying: ‘Hard to disagree – reflects the frustration across EU and the enormity of what’s at stake for us all. We remain open to finalize a fair Brexit deal but need a UK Govt willing to work with EU to get it done.’
Asked if the PM was playing a ‘blame game’, the PM’s spokesman shot back: ‘Absolutely not. It is not us talking in that language.’
The briefing around the call caused anger in some circles, with claims it misrepresented Mrs Merkel’s typically diplomatic approach.
But government sources flatly denied the exchanges had been ‘made up’.
It is understood Mr Johnson initially asked for the German Chancellor’s ‘help’ with Michel Barnier because he was ‘not negotiating’ with the UK.
Mrs Merkel ‘let the cat out of the bag’ by making clear that Northern Ireland in the customs union was a red line, at which point Mr Johnson insisted that was ‘not going to be accepted’.
The source said Mrs Merkel ‘did not mean it in an aggressive way’, but her words had put the EU’s stance into sharp focus.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar and EU negotiator Michel Barnier have given short shrift to the UK’s Brexit blueprint
A survey conducted by ComRes showed 83 per cent of voters would blame Parliament if Brexit is delayed beyond October 31
Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom and housing minister Esther McVey were at the Cabinet meeting in No10 yesterday
What is Boris Johnson’s five-point plan to scrap the Irish backstop?
Northern Ireland would leave the Customs’ Union with the rest of the UK but stay in the single market.
This would constitute an ‘all island regulatory zone’ that covers trade of all goods. It would mean no checks between the two nations, because Northern Ireland would still have to follow EU rules.
Goods from Britain to Northern Ireland would effectively be managed by a border in the Irish Sea, with checks only in that direction, not the reverse.
The ‘all island regulatory zone’ will have to be approved by the people of Northern Ireland. This means the Northern Ireland Assembly has the right to veto the zone and could hold a referendum on the matter.
Customs checks would have to be put in place on trade between Northern and the Republic of Ireland. Most checks would be made using technology, but some would still have to be physical.
Cash for Northern Ireland
A promise of a ‘new deal for Northern Ireland’ means ministers putting money aside for Belfast and Dublin to help aide economic development and ensure new measures work.
Keeping to the Good Friday agreement
Freedom of movement between two countries will remain. New deal would confirm commitment to collobaration between UK and Ireland.
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