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Boris Johnson bids to save Brexit plan in last-ditch talks with Varadkar

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson

By Our Political Staff

Boris Johnson is to hold crunch talks in Dublin with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this week as negotiations to avert a no-deal Brexit hang in the balance.

The two leaders spoke by telephone for about 40 minutes yesterday amid accusations from No. 10 that the EU was making it "essentially impossible" for Britain to leave with an agreement.

"Both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal," a Downing Street spokesman said. "They hope to meet in person later this week."

Earlier there was fury in Brussels following a series of No. 10 briefings claiming German chancellor Angela Merkel had made clear a deal was now "overwhelmingly unlikely".

No. 10 sources claimed Mrs Merkel had told the Prime Minister that Britain could not leave the EU unless it was prepared to leave Northern Ireland behind in a permanent customs union.

"It was a useful clarifying moment," the unnamed source, quoted by Sky News, said. "If this represents an established position, it means a deal is essentially impossible. It also made clear they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement."

DUP leader Arlene Foster said any demand to keep Northern Ireland inside the customs union would be "beyond crazy".

Later Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill took the opposite view, insisting Northern Ireland "can't withstand" being excluded from the customs union and the single market.

Last night the European Parliament's president said "no progress" was made during Brexit talks with Boris Johnson in Downing Street.

David Sassoli said he had entered No. 10 yesterday hoping to hear proposals that could take negotiations for a new deal forward but left disappointed.

In the absence of a deal, he warned, Mr Johnson has two options: ask for an extension or a no-deal Brexit. But any new accord would not be passed by the EU parliament "at any price", he added, stressing it would not approve of one that did not uphold the Good Friday Agreement.

Earlier, a No. 10 source warned negotiations with Brussels could collapse and blamed Mr Varadkar for refusing to engage. The claims provoked a furious response from European Council president Donald Tusk, who accused Mr Johnson of jeopardising the future security of the EU and the UK.

"Boris Johnson, what's at stake is not winning some stupid blame game," he tweeted. "At stake is the future of Europe and the UK, as well as the security and interests of our people."

But Mrs Foster claimed the EU was not interested in a negotiated outcome. "The comments from the German Chancellor that Northern Ireland must remain in the EU customs union for ever reveal the real objective of Dublin and the European Union," she said.

"For the United Kingdom to be asked to leave a part of its sovereign territory in a foreign organisation of which the UK would no longer be a part and over which we would have no say whatsoever is beyond crazy. No UK Government could ever concede such a surrender.

"The EU is not interested in a negotiated outcome at this time. Their position is that the UK can only leave with a deal if it agrees a binding piece of international law permanently tying either the whole country or a part of it to the EU's legal order.

"The true purpose of the backstop is in the open for all to see. Those who supported the backstop as the best of both worlds can now see the error of that assessment. It was neither temporary nor an insurance policy.

"The Prime Minister's proposals have flushed out Dublin's real intentions to trap Northern Ireland in the EU customs union, where Dublin rather than the United Kingdom's elected representatives would be in the driving seat. We will not accept any such ultimatum or outcome."

Speaking in Belfast before travelling to Brussels to meet EU figures, Ms O'Neill accused Mrs Foster and the Government of "playing fast and loose with our livelihoods".

"It's not good enough. The real implications are going to be felt here on this island," she said.

"The DUP are on the wrong side of the argument.

"The bottom line is that the North can't withstand being excluded from the customs union and the single market.

"That's what needs to be protected."

Amid the dramatic escalation in the war of words between London and Brussels, there was apparent alarm among some UK ministers at the prospect the Government could withdraw security co-operation with the EU if it tries to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said: "I am clear that any threat on withdrawing security co-operation with Ireland is unacceptable." The Prime Minister's spokesman insisted, however, that Mr Johnson had consistently made plain the UK's continued desire to have "a close security partnership with our EU colleagues".

Later the Tanaiste said the Republic would not be pressurised into accepting Mr Johnson's Brexit deal. Simon Coveney suggested briefings emerging from Downing Street were an effort to put pressure on Dublin to make concessions.

"A no-deal Brexit will not be Ireland's choice and it will never be the EU's choice. If it happens, it will be a decision made by the British Government," he said.

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