Leo Varadkar’s weaponisation of the Irish border threatens the EU-UK trade deal he needs more than anyone

Leo Varadkar’s weaponisation of the Irish border threatens the EU-UK trade deal he needs more than anyone

Next time Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets Theresa May, he should ponder the irony of his position: nobody should want a Brexit deal with the UK more than him, yet no one has done more to ensure that ‘no deal’ is in prospect than Mr Varadkar.

The reason is Varadkar’s weaponisation of the UK’s border with the Republic to push for outcomes which are both unachievable and irresponsible. He has since compounded this mistake by doubling down on his demands to a point where he faces a choice: a bitter ‘no deal’ or domestic political humiliation. His recent bizarre threat to block British planes from crossing the Atlantic is a sign that the pressure of unfulfillable expectations he let loose is getting to him.

The first irresponsible demand amounted to the forced separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Not only does forcing Northern Ireland to loosen its ties with the rest of the country flatly contradict the Belfast Agreement, it separates Ulster from her main market – Great Britain. As Theresa May has said – and must mean – the UK won’t outsource the trade and regulatory policy of one of its constituent parts to a foreign entity.

Then Varadkar has insisted on, and amazingly gained EU26 agreement for, a ‘Northern Irish backstop’ that would effectively keep the whole UK in large parts of the EU in the event of no trade agreement. This is developing into the poison pill of EU/UK relations. This sequencing – negotiating a ‘backstop’ prior to trade talks – has hindered agreement from the off. It has forced diplomats to discuss how to keep trade flowing over the Irish border while not being able to discuss trade. This has not been a productive approach.

With the Irish backstop in its current form effectively preventing us from leaving the EU, it has been enthusiastically adopted by some in London. Number 10 this week briefed Tory party members that a deal which would see us trade with the EU along the lines of Canada (so freely, but with our not being subject to their making our rules) was off the table ‘because’ that would mean Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s Customs Union.

This leads us to the most likely reason for the prominence of the Irish backstop. Its real reason is not to prevent a new border in Northern Ireland: The EU, Ireland and the UK have all stated they will not build one. It has never been meant to ‘solve’ a non-existent ‘border crisis’, but its always been meant to keep the UK in substantial parts of the EU.

The backstop has been used by British officials to open up the possibility of remaining in something akin to the Single Market and Customs Union as rule-takers in perpetuity. There is however one problem with this plan: the British public and Parliament. This plan may seem clever in Dublin and Whitehall, but the Chequers deal is a deal so bad that Parliament could well well find ‘no deal’ is preferable.

So this is where Varadkar’s brinksmanship has got him: roadblocks on all the obvious solutions leading to a potential deal with little legitimacy in the UK for a needless ‘backstop’, which only heightens the chances of ‘no deal’.

This would be a disaster for Ireland. She exports £17bn to the UK each year and her government estimates that with ‘no deal’ tariffs this would fall by a third at the cost of 40,000 Irish jobs. These are the stakes Varadkar plays for when he seeks to play to the Sinn Fein gallery to garner a few votes.

It is a shame that Ireland has used its influence in Brussels to seek to break the Belfast Agreement by altering the status of Northern Ireland in the UK without her consent. In the process they have already done grave damage to the prospect of a genuine and sustainable free trade agreement being agreed between us and the EU.

So when the Prime Minister next meets Mr Varadkar, she should set him straight: no more absurd threats about planes, no more grubbing after Sinn Fein support in the Dail. It’s time for responsible leadership. No one is building a ‘hard border’, but Leo Varadkar is wrecking the trade deal he needs more than anyone.