An extension to avoid a crash-out Brexit has been raised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after British prime minister Boris Johnson’s proposals fell significantly short of a deal.
At a private meeting of the Fine Gael party yesterday, Mr Varadkar told colleagues an extension to the October 31 deadline is still “alive”.
Considerable difficulties have been voiced around Mr Johnson’s last-ditch plans by both the Government and the EU. In a letter, he laid out what he described as a “reasonable compromise” to scrap the backstop and replace it with two borders, including checks, on the island of Ireland.
Mr Varadkar warned Mr Johnson that his Brexit plans “do not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop”. Mr Johnson dismissed the backstop as a “bridge to nowhere”.
The four-page letter Mr Johnson sent to European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker laid out five elements of his new protocol:
- It confirms that the UK proposal is centred on a commitment to find solutions which are compatible with the Good Friday Agreement;
- It restates the commitment to long-standing areas of UK/Ireland collaboration, including those provided for in the Good Friday Agreement but also the Common Travel Area, the rights of all those living in Northern Ireland, and North/south co-operation;
- It provides for the potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone covering all goods including agrifood;
- It states the regulatory zone must depend on the consent of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. As part of this, the institutions would be asked to endorse the arrangements every four years;
- Finally, and perhaps most controversially, it states that Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU customs union, after the end of the transition period.
The tabling of Mr Johnson’s proposals came after 24 hours of drama and speculation during which he told the Conservative Party conference that Britain would come out of the EU on October 31 “come what may”.
He compared the Brexit crisis to a “pebble in our shoe” and said after three-and-a-half years, the people are “fed up” and feel they are “being taken for fools”.
Mr Varadkar last night spoke to Mr Johnson by phone and, in a statement afterwards, said they would speak again next week.
The Taoiseach went further at a meeting of his parliamentary party when he stressed that the backstop, which is seen as a necessary insurance policy to prevent a hard border with Northern Ireland, is still “the best show in town”.
He said the Government is “not rubbishing” the proposals, but that there is still some way to go in the talks.
He also admitted to TDs and senators that the idea of a Brexit extension beyond the October 31 deadline is “still alive”
Reacting to the letter, Mr Juncker said while there had been some “positive advances”, there remain “problematic points”, particularly over the “governance of the backstop”.
Brexit co-ordinator for the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, said MEPs are “absolutely not positive” about the proposals. In a tweet, he added: “It doesn’t provide the necessary safeguards for Ireland.”
UK and EU negotiators have now been tasked with reaching agreement on the complex area of customs checks and both sides will meet in Brussels in the coming days.
While all sides say they are pushing to try and achieve a deal before the end of this month, speculation is growing that a three- or six-month extension may be needed.
It has also been suggested all sides are equally focused on avoiding any blame for a no-deal situation, in part explaining why Mr Johnson’s proposals have not been fully rejected.