When Theresa May arrived in Brussels on Thursday for an EU summit where she hopes to break the impasse over finalising a Brexit agreement, her first meeting was with Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister.
The UK prime minister is seeking legal assurances from other leaders that the Northern Ireland backstop to avoid a hard border with the Irish Republic would only apply for a “short period”.
But British politicians hoping for help from Mr Varadkar are likely to be disappointed, despite the growing danger of a no-deal Brexit that would damage his country more than any other EU state and despite the taoiseach strengthening his hold on power this week.
Domestic political complexities mean it will be hard for the taoiseach to break with other EU leaders and offer anything legally binding on the backstop or to propose changes to Britain’s EU withdrawal treaty, the very thing hardline Brexiters in Mrs May’s Conservative party are demanding in order to support the deal.
“The objective here is to get this agreement ratified,” Mr Varadkar told reporters in Brussels after meeting Mrs May.
“If the backstop has an expiry date, if there is a unilateral exit clause, this is not a backstop. That would be to render it inoperable. That would mean reopening the substance of the withdrawal agreement and the EU is unequivocal that this is not an option.”
Mr Varadkar’s grip on the premiership has been bolstered by a new deal with Fianna Fáil, the biggest opposition party, to prolong his minority government until the spring of 2020. The parliamentary voting pact was set to expire at the end of this year but Mícheál Martin, Fianna Fáil’s leader, said on Wednesday that he would not force an election for a year because of the rising risk of a no-deal Brexit.
It, however, gives Mr Varadkar little leeway to shift his Brexit stance.
Virtually all parties have supported Mr Varadkar’s approach to the backstop as the best way of preventing a hard border with Northern Ireland. He would come under immediate attack for any move away from a political consensus that has broad support from the Irish public.
His supporters are adamant he is not for turning in the face of pressure from London and the Conservatives’ Democratic Unionist allies. “I don’t think they get it yet that we will not be moving on the backstop,” said a senior ally in his Fine Gael party who is heavily involved in Dublin’s preparations for Brexit.
Brussels is backing him. The Irish government said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Mr Varadkar agreed in a phone call on Tuesday that “the withdrawal agreement is a balanced compromise and the best outcome available”.
“While they agreed to work to provide reassurance to the UK, the agreement cannot be reopened or contradicted,” a spokesman said.
Mr Varadkar’s ally noted that Priti Patel, the Tory MP, had provoked outrage in Ireland by suggesting that the risk of post-Brexit food shortages could be used as leverage in talks with Dublin. Ms Patel has said her remarks were “taken out of context” but they struck a dark chord in Ireland, where schoolchildren are taught about the famine of the 1840s that killed 1m people.
“Priti Patel really reinforced that the backstop cannot move under any circumstances,” the ally said.
But the threat of a cliff-edge Brexit is still rising, even if senior Irish officials believe the lack of a Westminster majority for such an outcome opens up the prospect of a UK general election, another referendum or an extension of the Article 50 process to leave the EU.
Irish companies are increasingly concerned about a no-deal Brexit, which would threaten lucrative exports, imports and complex supply chains.
Corporate leaders believe there will still be time to bring the situation back from the brink before the UK’s scheduled March 29, 2019 departure but they have largely backed the Brexit treaty and Mr Varadkar’s approach.
“At the moment the mood [in business] is still very supportive of the government’s position but obviously there’s a risk that the mood could change if we find that the UK crashes out and there’s no transitional arrangements on March 29,” said Lucinda Creighton, a business consultant and former Irish EU minister.
Danny McCoy, head of Ibec, Ireland’s main business lobby, said people who had made contingency plans were “probably going to invoke them now”.
“In stark contrast to the UK, being reactive to a bad circumstance, the Irish government have played it proportionately and consistently,” said Mr McCoy. “Businesses are working on the basis that they’re going to have to deal with the UK not being in a sensible place for a period.”
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