Belfast Telegraph

Merkel fears Ireland's border stance is giving Brexiteers ammunition

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

By Kevin Doyle

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concerns about the Republic's hard-line position on Brexit during a phone call with the Taoiseach last month, it has emerged.

Europe's longest serving leader questioned Leo Varadkar's stance on the border in a no-deal scenario amid fears it was undercutting the EU's negotiating position.

The Irish government insists it is not preparing to erect any physical infrastructure at the border even if the UK crashes out without a deal on March 29.

But during a 40-minute phone call in early January, Mrs Merkel queried whether this was giving ammunition to Brexiteers.

Opponents of the so-called backstop, which ties Northern Ireland to EU regulations unless and until a workable trade deal is agreed, claim it is unnecessary because both the UK and Ireland have said they will not erect a border.

According to Bloomberg, Mr Varadkar explained to the Chancellor that no Irish government could accept the return of checkpoints, which could become targets for violence.

Dublin sources last night confirmed the accuracy of the report but noted that Mr Varadkar has previously stated "the only way to avoid a border in the long-term is to have customs and regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Ministers now routinely make talk about how a border cannot be avoided through "wishful thinking".

Since the phone call Mrs Merkel has publicly defended the need for the backstop on several occasions.

Earlier this week she said the EU and UK "must do everything to achieve an orderly Brexit" but a deal "must be a fair agreement that works in practice and we have some work ahead".

Last night pro-Brexit members of Theresa May's government were reported as saying they are willing to accept a five-year limit on the backstop - a proposal that has already been rejected by the EU.

Both Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin told delegates at an all-island Brexit forum that EU solidarity for the Republic remains watertight.

The Taoiseach said those predicting the EU will abandon Ireland at the last minute in order to secure a Brexit deal "are in for a nasty surprise".

And Mr Martin said: "There is no scenario where they [the EU27] will force Ireland to accept a deal."

However, what happens if the UK leaves without a deal is less clear. The border will become an EU frontier which the Republic will be expected to police to protect the single market.

The Irish government has rejected suggestions from unnamed EU diplomats that an alternative to a hard border on the island would be for checks on goods leaving the Republic for the continent.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney said he is "suspicious" of such ideas coming from anonymous sources who may have an agenda. However, they echo comments made in recent weeks by Belgium MEP Philippe Lamberts, a member of the Brexit steering group of the European Parliament.

He told German news outlet Der Spiegel: "If Ireland refuses to protect the border with Northern Ireland after a hard Brexit, we would have to relocate the customs border to the continent."

Mr Varadkar sought to categorically deny this proposal yesterday, saying: "We are founder members of the single market. We can't allow a decision made in Britain to leave the European Union to undermine our membership of the single market and customs union, which we will protect."

He added that checks on goods leaving Ireland "would create a hard border between Ireland and the European Union and that is not something we can accept".

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