Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is threatening to block trade talks in December and has given Theresa May one-month deadline to clarify that there won’t be a hard border with Northern Ireland. 

Breakfast with May

The Irish PM, who met May today in Sweden, as both PMs were attending the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg, said that Brexiters have been making plans for exiting the EU, but hadn’t actually “thought all this through.” He stated: “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.”

Varadkar also explained that, “We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past. We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”

May had reiterated this morning the government’s promise that there won’t be a hard border, saying to Varadkar that we’re “almost there,” but her comments were dismissed as “wishful thinking.”

A UK government spokesman said that May and Varadkar’s discussions this morning were “constructive,” and May was “clear that the Belfast agreement must be at the heart of our approach and that Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances demand specific solutions.” He also reassured the public that both leaders would “work together to find solutions which ensure there is no return to the borders of the past.”

 Varadkar’s Demands

Speaking to reporters, the Irish PM stressed that Britain needed to give more certainty, especially after it had “taken the customs union and single market off the table.” He added that Ireland wants some form of guarantee that “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.”

According to an Irish source quoted in the Independent, “The British want to give the impression that we are all on the same page, that it is just a question of finding a form of words, but that is certainly not the case. We need an explicit commitment, confidence about the impact on the island of Ireland, before the talks can progress to phase two.”

Despite his combative tone, Varadkar still argued that it was possible for EU leaders to agree that sufficient progress was made on the Brexit negotiations, including the issue of the Irish border, to move on to trade talks in December. As he said: “I think it’s certainly possible that we can come to conclusions in December allowing phase two talks to begin, but if we have to wait until the new year, if we have to wait for further concessions, so be it. But I think it would be in all of our interests that we proceed to phase two if we can in December.”

May had promised at the summit that the UK will honour its commitments and that an extra £20bn will be offered to settle the divorce bill, or so it is rumoured. As she said today: “I was clear in my speech in Florence that we will honour our commitments. But of course we want to move forward together, talking about the trade issues and trade partnership for the future. I have set out a vision for that economic partnership. I look forward to the European Union responding positively to that so we can move forward together and ensure that we can get the best possible arrangements for the future that will be good for people in the United Kingdom and across the remaining EU27.”

So, the next stop will be 14-15 December, where the EU27 will decide whether the discussions move on to trade or not. If not, we would have to wait until Spring next year when the next European Council meeting is held.