Varadkar: EU will not allow 'rolling cliff edge' on Brexit deadlines

Leo Varadkar arrives for the European People's Party (EPP) leaders meeting ahead of the European Council Summit in Brussels. Picture: EPA/Julien Warnand

Latest: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned British prime minister Theresa May the EU will not allow a "rolling cliff edge where we put off decisions and deadlines every couple of months" to consume Brexit, writes Fiachra O Cionnaith in Brussels.

Speaking to reporters as he arrived at the European People's Party meeting before today's crunch EU summit, Mr Varadkar said a decision must be made on what happens next.

The summit is taking place just eight days before the current Friday March 29 Brexit divorce day deadline, and comes as Ms May scrambles to secure a short delay until June 30.

This is despite European Council president Donald Tusk insisting an extension cannot go past May 23 due to the imminent MEP elections, and a belief any delay will only be allowed by the EU if the House of Commons finally passes Ms May's deal next week.

Asked about the stand-off by reporters, Mr Varadkar said while there is "an openness to an extension across the board" - a view contradicted by France, Belgium and Spain saying they are opposed to any delay - "we can't have a situation where there is a rolling cliff edge where we put off decisions and deadlines every couple of months".

He separately said it is "always up to them [Britain] to revoke article 50, even at the last minute", later adding:

This is going on two and a half years now, I don't think this can drag on for months and years, we want to get on with it.

Mr Varadkar did not specifically say if Ms May's June 30 delay target is off the table and said a "long extension" until December - which has been widely rumoured in recent days - "has not been requested".

He labelled the current climate as "chaotic" and said while "nobody" wants a no deal crash out crisis next Friday, "no deal is only ever a British choice".

Brexit uncertainty 'catastrophic' for business community, says British MP

Update 9.25am: British Labour party politician Hilary Benn says he can see no way out of the current Brexit impasse other than to go back to the British people for a second referendum.

“All of this uncertainty is catastrophic for the business community,” he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

“We’re facing a constitutional and political crisis, the responsibility for getting out of that lies with the Prime Minister.”

A no deal Brexit is in nobody’s interest, he added. It would be disastrous for the European Union, Ireland and the UK.

We must get an extension from the European Council.

Mr Benn said that the Prime Minister’s comments on Wednesday, when she blamed MPs for her decision to postpone Brexit, “left a lot to be desired.”

In a televised address Mrs May told voters that she regretted having to seek a three-month extension to Britain’s EU membership at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

She said MPs must choose between her Brexit deal and leaving the EU without a deal, or not leaving at all.

“The Prime Minister has shown an unwillingness to move an inch, instead she’s blaming MPs.

“The Prime Minister refused to compromise at any stage, the real blockage is the Prime Minister, not parliament.”

Mr Benn said he supports calls for an extension and recommended that if, at the end of the extension, there is still deadlock, then the only way to resolve the issue is to go back to the people and hold a second referendum.

It is important that parliament should demonstrate that they have a clear purpose in mind, he said.

The Government should be taking the lead, but the Prime Minister is “sticking rigidly to her position.”

Sinn Féin warns against any Stormont veto on backstop wording

Update 6.40am: A restored executive cannot have any veto over the working of the border backstop, Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader has said.

Michelle O’Neill made clear that Sinn Féin would reject any move to bolster the powers of the devolved administration in relation to the backstop’s operation.

Devolution in Northern Ireland can only be resurrected if both of the main parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, agree to enter another powersharing coalition.

“There will not be any situation where there will be a veto handed to this Assembly,” said Mrs O’Neill.

Mrs O’Neill’s comments came in response to speculation that the Government may move to strengthen the role of the Assembly in domestic law in order to win DUP support for the Brexit withdrawal treaty.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

Assembly structures mean the DUP could, with the assistance of a small number of like-minded MLAs, wield a veto on backstop matters by triggering the “petition of concern” voting mechanism.

Under the terms of the proposal withdrawal deal, the backstop would come into effect if a wider trade deal fails to materialise before the end of the Brexit implementation period.

It would tie the whole UK to a customs union and see Northern Ireland adhere to single market rules on goods in order to keep the Irish border free flowing.

The UK Government has already committed to giving Stormont a consultative role before a decision is made to either enter the backstop or extend the implementation period.

This is a desperate situation, this is chaos, this is catastrophic, and I believe the DUP and British government are taking a hatchet and sledgehammer to our local economy and the needs of people here, so there can't be a situation where there would be a veto handed to the Assembly

And, if the backstop does come into effect, the Stormont Assembly and Executive would be given a role in its operation, with the legislature being asked to consent to any new or amended EU laws applying to the region.

Mrs O’Neill said: “Of course there can be a consultative role, that was set out in the withdrawal agreement as it stands, but there cannot be any veto afforded to the DUP or anybody else in this situation.

“This is a desperate situation, this is chaos, this is catastrophic, and I believe the DUP and British government are taking a hatchet and sledgehammer to our local economy and the needs of people here, so there can’t be a situation where there would be a veto handed to the Assembly.

“The EU have been clear about that, because that’s not what’s in the withdrawal agreement, and I have spoken to the Tánaiste this week and he also gave the same assurance that there would be no veto handed to an Assembly, that obviously doesn’t exist at this moment in time.”

Theresa May speaking last night. Photo: PA.
Theresa May speaking last night. Photo: PA.

European leaders will gather in Brussels today to consider whether to delay Brexit.

Theresa May has asked for an extension until June 30 to get a deal done.

EU Council President Donald Tusk spoke on it yesterday: "I believe that a short extension will be possible but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the Withdrawal Agreement."

But he did not talk about the possibility of a long extension.

And a leaked EU Commission document suggests the choice is either extend until just before the European elections in May, or kick it out until the end of the year.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Government Buildings. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Government Buildings. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was fairly open to Mrs May's request saying: "It's time now to cut the British government some slack when it comes to their request for an extension."

But France has threatened to veto the extension if the British Prime Minister does not show a clear way for the withdrawal deal to get passed.

It is unlikely to be a warm reception for Theresa May when she arrives in Brussels later and decisions made today could be key.

- Press Association and Digital desk

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