Irish PM tells UK it can’t halt backstop plans

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Irish premier Leo Varadkar has dealt a blow to British hopes of a breakthrough in Brexit talks, warning he will not accept a deal that gives the UK unilateral power to halt “backstop” arrangements for the border with Northern Ireland.

Theresa May is expected to brief her cabinet today on proposals to avoid a hard border in Ireland through a UK-wide customs arrangement that would eliminate most checks on goods. 
To ease Conservative fears that the UK could effectively stay in the EU customs union indefinitely, preventing trade deals with other countries, Downing Street is pushing for a review mechanism that would allow the UK to exit the arrangement.

Leo Varadkar. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Leo Varadkar. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

However, following a telephone conversation with Mrs May yesterday, Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said Dublin would only consider a review mechanism if it was clear it couldn’t be triggered by one side alone.

The conversation followed a report that Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has privately demanded the right to pull Britain out of the Irish backstop after just three months.

A spokesman for Mr Varadkar said: “The Taoiseach indicated an openness to consider proposals for a review, provided that it was clear that the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop.

“He recalled the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply ‘unless and until’ alternative arrangements are agreed.”
A Downing Street spokesman described Mrs May’s conversation with Mr Varadkar as “constructive”, adding: “They agreed that the intention was that the backstop should only be a temporary arrangement and that the best solution to the Northern Ireland border would be found by agreeing a future relationship between the UK and the EU.

“In order to ensure that the backstop, if ever needed, would be temporary, the Prime Minister said that there would need to be a mechanism through which the backstop could be brought to an end.”

Meanwhile, the European Commission dismissed reports over the weekend that a Brexit deal has been privately agreed after major concessions from Brussels. Insisting that negotiations are “ongoing” at a technical level, the Commission’s chief spokesman summed up progress by telling reporters: “Not there yet.”

Expectations are rising that UK negotiator Olly Robbins will be pressing hard to finalise a deal in Brussels this week, to set the scene for a special Brexit summit later in the month to secure the approval of the leaders of the 27 remaining member states.

But the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier is spending three days away from Brussels on visits to Finland and Slovakia.