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Irish backstop talks not on the menu as PM dines with taoiseach | Politics News



The Irish leader quashed Theresa May’s hopes of breaking the deadlock on the backstop ahead of a dinner meeting by saying he would not be talking about Brexit.

Speaking after meeting the DUP and other Northern Ireland parties, Leo Varadkar said he thought a deal can be done.

But he also said he would only be seeking to “restore confidence and trust” with Mrs May at the private dinner on Friday.

The prime minister had been hoping to make progress on the issue of the backstop, but Mr Varadkar made clear just hours before their meeting that he would be “sharing perspectives” rather than doing any negotiating.

The backstop – a customs plan to avoid a “hard” border between Ireland and Northern Ireland if a Brexit deal is not reached – remains the main stumbling block in Mrs May’s plan to take the UK out of the European Union.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker meets with Theresa May in Brussels
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker meets with Theresa May in Brussels

Mr Varadkar said any actual negotiations could only take place “between the European Union and the United Kingdom”.

His comments come as Mrs May and her cabinet ministers had appeared to pin their hopes on the dinner, indicating it was a sign that a new solution could be reached, enabling her to get a deal through parliament.

Speaking in Belfast to political parties before meeting Mrs May, Mr Varadkar said: “I think everybody wants to avoid no-deal, everybody wants to avoid a hard border and everybody wants to continue to have a very close political and economic relationship between Britain and Ireland no matter want happens.

“There is much more that unites us than divides us and time is running short, and we need to get to an agreement really as soon as possible, and I’ll be working very hard and redoubling my efforts, along with government, to do that.”

Leo Varadkar will also meet the main Northern Ireland political parties

Downing Street said Mrs May would be “emphasising what we are looking for, seeking the legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that parliament said it needs to approve the deal”.

She was joined by her chief of staff Gavin Barwell and her chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins for the dinner at Farmleigh House.

Arlene Foster did not indicate whether she spoke to the taoiseach about alternatives to the backstop, and said it was pointless to discuss an extension to Article 50.

Article 50 is the section of the EU treaty which allows member states to leave, and triggering it gives a two-year period for a new deal to be reached. The UK’s negotiation period is due to end on 29 March.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox held talks in Dublin with his Irish counterpart Seamus Woulfe.

Mr Cox has been leading work on providing either a time limit to the backstop or giving the UK an exit mechanism from it.

Dublin has said the backstop cannot be time limited because it provides an “insurance policy” again the hard border on the island of Ireland.

But Mrs May wants legally binding assurances that the UK will not end up trapped in the EU via the backstop.

Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, will have his first continental talks when he meets Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Monday.

Elsewhere, ministers have been looking “with interest” at a letter from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn setting out the terms by which his party would back a deal in the Commons.

Labour Remainers have voiced their anger over fears the plan would kill their hopes of their party supporting a second referendum.

Theresa May speaks to the press at the European Council headquarters in Brussels
Theresa May speaks to the press at the European Council headquarters in Brussels

However, Downing Street sources said there were still “very considerable points of difference” with the Labour vision of staying in the customs union after Brexit.

Mrs May might be hoping the threat of MPs backing a “softer” Norway-style deal if there is no agreement on the prime minister’s proposal will force some Tory Brexiteers to back her plan.

A Norway-style deal would see the UK becoming a member of the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association – gaining access to the single market and limited EU trade barriers.

Mr Varadkar is one of those who has been vocal about Mr Corbyn’s alternative, saying: “I think what Jeremy Corbyn has done is fleshed out a potential future relationship which is one that would mean a future relationship that is very close between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and I think in that regard they are very interesting.”

However he said he would only be dealing with Mrs May as the “democratically elected leader of the UK”.

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