Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar held their first meeting as heads of government this morning in Dublin. A chilly morning set the scene for what was, at times, a tense meeting which comes at a critical period in Anglo-Irish relations.
Building on a speech delivered last Thursday at a meeting of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, Varadkar was clear that in the event of a No Deal outcome, there would be no discussions on a future UK-EU trade deal without first addressing the familiar issues of citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border. In short, there would be no escape for the UK in facing up to the core obligations inherent in the current Withdrawal Agreement.
Varadkar, who was careful not to depart from his prepared script throughout, also warned Johnson that should both sides reach agreement, a negotiated trade deal with the EU and US would be no overnight feat;
“It’s going to be tough dealing with issues ranging from tariffs, to fishing rights, product standards and state aid. It will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments. Prime Minister, negotiating FTAs with the EU and US and securing their ratification in less than three years is going to be a Herculean task for you. We want to be your friend and ally, your Athena, in doing so. The manner in which you leave the EU will determine if that’s possible. “
The Taoiseach reiterated comments from the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) last week that no new UK proposals on alternative arrangements to the backstop had been received by the government or, at EU level. Despite multiple questions on this point from the assembled press corps, Johnson was ambiguous about the true existence or detail of such proposals.
With Varadkar’s glaze firmly on the new Prime Minister throughout his remarks, Johnson sought to deliver an upbeat statement in which he sought to allude fears that his government was not prioritizing getting a deal. Johnson went as far as noting that “it would be a failure of statecraft” should both parties fail to reach agreement. The PM, referencing a trip he made to the border some decades ago, sought to assure his hosts that the UK can leave the EU while maintaining its commitments to the Good Friday Agreement and also ensuring Ireland’s relationship with the single market would go unhindered. However, in the absence of legal workable alternative arrangements, Johnson’s promises will have fallen on deaf ears in Dublin.
In what was no doubt anticipated by officials in Dublin, Johnson, albeit recognizing that talks were necessary at EU level, expressed his desire for bilateral discussions with his Irish counterparts on breaking the impasse.
Both leaders will have felt they achieved what they had set out to do. For Varadkar, there was a need to be firm with his British counterpart on the approach to Brexit while also recognizing that the UK remained Ireland’s most important ally. For Johnson, today’s bilateral perhaps has more weight in symbolism than substance. The resignation of Amber Rudd on Saturday has piled pressure on the British PM to convince opponents – and members of his own government – that his priority is to get a deal. Today’s whistle stop tour in Dublin will no doubt be used by No. 10 to give such assurances.
It was the final minutes of the choreographed press conference that perhaps portrayed most effectively the seismic differences in the position of both governments. For Johnson, a step up in focus and a commitment to compromise on the backstop could deliver a deal in time for next month’s EU summit. For Varadkar’s part the message was stark: no backstop is No Deal.
While the joint statement between both leaders spoke of a commitment to finding an agreement, the substance needed to break the ongoing deadlock remains firmly absent. As Johnson’s plane made the short trip home across the Irish Sea, attention turns to Westminster once again in what will no doubt be another ‘extraordinary week.’