Leo Varadkar has exercised unusual influence over the Brexit negotiations. Now, as the talks near their endgame, the 39-year-old Irish prime minister faces a fateful moment.
Over the past year, Mr Varadkar’s government has, with the full backing of the EU, made the drive to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland the crucial issue in negotiations. In so doing, it has helped nudge Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, away from the harder Brexit she had previously sought.
Dublin shows every indication of being pleased with its achievement — as does Mr Varadkar, who tried to help clear the way towards a final deal on Britain’s divorce settlement with a phone call to Mrs May this week.
“He’s very cool about where things are at,” says one prime ministerial ally. “He feels things are moving in the right direction. He’s very relaxed about this.”
The emerging compromise could avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland as well as protecting the flow of east-west trade with Britain on which Mr Varadkar’s country depends.
But others in his inner circle worry that Ireland could still face a no-deal Brexit — in which it would suffer much of the collateral damage — despite Mr Varadkar’s success in pushing the country’s priorities over the past year.
Such an outcome would inflict considerable pain on the Irish economy and raise questions over a negotiation strategy has that played well with voters. In a recent Ipsos/MRBI poll for the Irish Times, 72 per cent of respondents said Mr Varadkar should stick with his position on Brexit and should not compromise to achieve a deal.
The biggest stumbling block is the so-called “backstop”, the fallback provisions intended to serve as a guarantee in the exit treaty against a hard border.
Britain wants to avoid measures that could pull Northern Ireland out of London’s orbit, such as by keeping it as part of the EU customs union even as the rest of the UK left.
Mrs May’s government also wants a clear mechanism through which Britain could leave an all-UK customs union with the EU, London’s preferred option for avoiding a hard border with Ireland.
Mrs May now seems to be on the cusp of agreeing such an all-UK customs arrangement with the EU, which would remain in force until a free-trade deal with the bloc was settled — as long as she can win sufficient domestic backing.
For thousands of Irish companies trading in Britain such a scenario would mean no checks at ports and airports, at least in the short term. “It would obviously be very a positive outcome for Irish business for the entire UK to stay in the customs union,” said a senior business figure in Dublin.
Mr Varadkar is also making one more push to help such a compromise become reality. In his phone call to Mrs May on Monday, he signalled what his office described as his “openness” to a so-called review mechanism — which would allow the UK to exit the backstop.
In parliament on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar ruled out including an expiry date for the backstop in any review or rights for the UK to unilaterally end the guarantee. “To come to an agreement you sometimes need to be creative – and you have to be open to creative solutions and creative language to get to an agreement.”
Dublin cast this as his attempt to inject fresh impetus into the talks.
One Irish official cautioned that successive attempts to placate London had not worked and lamented the atmosphere of distrust in the talks. “We’ve been throwing them bones for months now and the Brexiters gobble them up and throw them back at us,” the official said. “There’s no belief that we can trust the British for a second. That’s where things are.”
In particular, Mr Varadkar has taken a tough line on calls by Dominic Raab, the UK’s Brexit secretary, for a three month notice period to pull out of the backstop. In his phone conversation with Mrs May, the Irish prime minister made clear he would never accept a deal that allowed the UK to unilaterally walk away.
But the British prime minister herself has not called for such a time limit, and her Brexit stance has signally softened, to Dublin’s great relief.
Today Mrs May is willing for the UK to remain within the EU’s single market and customs union for some time — until the end of 2020 or beyond. Previously, as outlined in a showpiece speech at Lancaster House in early 2017, she had planned to take Britain out of both, with no mention of a transition period — a path that could have endangered the €65bn in bilateral trade between Ireland and Britain.
Protecting such trade is a crucial objective for Mr Varadkar. His minority government faces the prospect of an early election if it cannot prolong its deal to remain in office with the biggest opposition party, Fianna Fáil, which has warned against capitulating to the UK on Brexit.
Lisa Chambers, Fianna Fáil’s Brexit spokeswoman, has already attacked Mr Varadkar’s conciliatory phone call this week as “a significant and potentially hazardous change in direction”.
The risk remains that the Brexit negotiations may collapse, whether because of divisions within the British cabinet and parliament, or unwillingness in London to sign up to the text on offer.
Mrs May’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, who provide her with her parliamentary majority, also remain opposed to plans under the backstop to keep the province within the EU’s regulatory area.
A longer transition for the whole UK may rob this issue of some of its urgency, but senior European diplomats say there is no sign of any softening in the position of Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader.
In recent days, Mr Varadkar has expressed concern that Brexit has undermined peace in Northern Ireland and “is fraying” the relationship between Dublin and London.
His allies also remain nervous. “Until there’s a deal, there’s no deal,” said one person in his circle. “There’s a lot more work to be done.”
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