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Theresa May attempts to defuse tension with Varadkar on border issue

 

By Jon Stone

Theresa May called the Irish Prime Minister yesterday in order to calm anger in Dublin over comments made by her Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.

Mr Raab reportedly tried to backslide on a commitment the UK had made to prevent a hard border with the Republic, suggesting the "backstop" policy should expire after just three months.

Leo Varadkar's office said the Prime Minister has "sought" the call after the comments, said to have been made in a private meeting with officials, emerged.

Mr Varadkar told Ms May he was open to a "review" mechanism for the backstop, which is controversial with Eurosceptics, but that this could not amount to "a unilateral decision to end" it by the UK.

Ms May told her counterpart she was still committed to a full backstop, despite Mr Raab's comments.

Speaking earlier in Dublin, Mr Varadkar had said a time-limited backstop as suggested by Mr Raab would not be worth the paper it was written on.

And he warned that the United Kingdom was "in many ways a divided kingdom", noting that Mrs May's "cabinet seems divided, the government seems divided, parliament is divided and that has made it very difficult to come to an agreement".

He added: "As a government we're working very hard to get an agreement, ideally by the end of the year, but you know one thing we can't countenance is any idea that there'd be a three-month limit on the backstop.

"You know a backstop with a three-month limit on it or an expiry date of that nature isn't worth the paper it's written on, and what the UK government has signed up to is a legally operative backstop that will apply unless and until we have a new agreement to supersede it - and I think it's reasonable for us to expect a country like the United Kingdom and a government like the UK government to stand by its commitments."

Many Tory Eurosceptics are adamant that any backstop must be limited in time, to avoid the UK being signed permanently to a customs union with the EU after it leaves.

The EU has said a time-limited backstop would not be a backstop because it would not prevent a hard border in all circumstances. Giving an account of the two leaders' conversation, a spokesperson for Mr Varadkar said: "Both leaders emphasised their commitment to avoiding a hard border and the need for a legally operable backstop.

She added that the Taoiseach "recalled the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply 'unless and until' alternative arrangements are agreed".

A Downing Street spokesperson also gave an account of the call, providing less detail.

They said: "The Prime Minister spoke to the Taoiseach this morning to take stock of the progress being made in the negotiations, including on the Northern Ireland backstop. In a constructive conversation, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach discussed the remaining issues.

"They agreed that the intention was that the backstop should only be a temporary arrangement and that the best solution to the Northern Ireland border would be found by agreeing a future relationship between the UK and the EU.

"In order to ensure that the backstop, if ever needed, would be temporary, the Prime Minister said that there would need to be a mechanism through which the backstop could be brought to an end.

"She affirmed the UK's commitment to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

"The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach agreed that discussions should continue."

Mrs May also discussed the Brexit situation with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz yesterday.

A No 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister updated the chancellor on the progress of Brexit negotiations saying that 95% of the withdrawal agreement was now complete, and that she was confident that a solution could be found on the Northern Ireland backstop."

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