European Council president Donald Tusk has warned the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit is “more likely than ever before” amid growing fears there may be no solution to the Irish border standoff.
Mr Tusk drastically raised the stakes last night after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned of the “catastrophic” situation and admitted the previously rock-solid October deal deadline may now be stretched out until December, which would further block a snap Irish election.
In a letter to European Council members before this week’s crucial EU summit in Brussels, Mr Tusk said it is important to “remain hopeful and determined” a last- minute deal can be struck.
However, accepting the reality is “we must prepare the EU for a no-deal”, he said that the worst-case scenario is “now more likely than ever before”.
The prediction was echoed by Mr Varadkar, who publicly confirmed for the first time yesterday that Ireland has always been preparing for a no-deal situation which he said would be “catastrophic” for those involved.
While saying a breakthrough can potentially still be made, Mr Varadkar acknowledged the dire nature of the Brexit negotiations, saying he never expected a deal to be struck at the October EU summit this week.
And hinting at a last ditch attempt to strike a deal, he said it is not unlikely that the previously rock-solid October deadline may need to be stretched out further until at least December — just weeks away from the UK’s March 29, 2019, EU divorce date.
We’ve been making preparations for a no-deal scenario all along, even though we don’t believe that’s the likely outcome,” said Mr Varadkar. “I have to say I always thought that was unlikely, I figured November-December was always the best opportunity for a deal.
“I don’t want to create the wrong impression by suggesting that’s now slipped to December, but if we don’t have one [a special EU summit] in November, well then we’ll have the regular summit in December.
“For all of us but particularly for the UK the consequences of a no-deal cliff edge Brexit at the end of March next year is potentially catastrophic, really bad for Ireland, relatively bad for the EU, but quite a disaster for the UK.”
The concerns over a failure to make any significant progress on the Irish border standoff were further underlined yesterday by DUP leader Arlene Foster who told Mr Varadkar at a private meeting in Dublin she will not “compromise” or allow Belfast to be treated differently to London.
In a tense Westminster speech, Ms May also said she will never agree to a backstop she agreed last December that would treat the North differently to the rest of the UK, and said any backstop must be “temporary”.
However, the position was heavily criticised by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who was speaking at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in Dublin, and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in London, the latter of whom said after meeting Ms May: “These are times of history. These are times of big decision. We are now at crunch time.”
The deepening Brexit crisis came as Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin met in Government Buildings in Dublin last night for their first talks on renewing the confidence and supply agreement.
It is understood both parties have agreed to appoint teams of negotiators with four TDs who will begin formal talks next week.
Sources said while no pre-conditions have been put down, Mr Varadkar reiterated his desire for a deal lasting until 2020. Mr Martin is believed to have said any deal should be limited to one year, with a source saying he stands by his view that no election should be called until Brexit is resolved.