Brexit: Leo Varadkar demands border promise before trade talks
TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has demanded a commitment that there will be no return to a "hard border" in a fresh clash with Theresa May over Brexit.
Attending a European summit in Sweden, the Fine Gael leader made clear that Brexit negotiations could not move to a second phase until the future status of the border was clear.
European Council president Donald Tusk has set a two-week deadline for the British government to make further movement on the border issue and EU 'divorce bill' if it is to agree to begin trade talks.
British prime minister Theresa May is anxious to secure the agreement of EU leaders to open discussions on Britain's future relations with the bloc – including a free trade deal – when they meet next month in Brussels.
But Mr Varadkar, who met Mrs May in the margins of the gathering in Gothenburg, said yesterday that would require further "concessions" from the British government.
"Before we move to phase two talks on trade, we want taken off the table any suggestion that there will be a physical border, a hard border, new barriers to trade on the island of Ireland," he told reporters.
"If we have to wait until the New Year, if we have to wait for further concessions, so be it."
In a scathing assessment of the UK's preparedness for the complexity of Brexit negotiations, Mr Varadkar added: "It's 18 months since the referendum, it's 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one.
"Sometimes it doesn't seem like they have thought all this through."
Speaking after talks with Mrs May in Sweden, Mr Tusk said the EU has completed the internal work necessary to give the green light for talks on trade and transition at the next European Council summit in Brussels on December 14-15.
However, he said "much more progress" was needed from the UK on two of the three key issues to break the deadlock which has prevented the move to the second phase.
"While good progress on citizens' rights is being made, we need to see much more progress on Ireland and on the financial settlement."
Mrs May told reporters as she left Gothenburg that "good progress" had been made but there was "more to be done".
It has been suggested Mrs May could be prepared to offer a further £20 billion in divorce payments, bringing to around £38bn the total sum the UK would to pay to settle its liabilities – well short of the £53bn sought by Brussels.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged the Irish government to "hold strong" to the position that "there can be no hardening of the Irish border".
But DUP MP Sammy Wilson accused the Irish government of trying to "thwart the referendum result" and "keep the UK chained to the EU".