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Brexit backstop showdown as Johnson and Varadkar set for 'last chance' summit

Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson meet in Dublin last month
Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson meet in Dublin last month
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

BY Kevin Doyle

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are set to travel to Liverpool today for one of the final set pieces before the future of Brexit finally becomes clear.

Journalists are to be kept away from the showdown summit that EU officials believe could be a defining moment in the three-year process.

Sources said that the meeting offers "the last bit of hope" that a deal can be achieved ahead of the EU Council Summit next week.

However, there are some concerns on the Irish side that they are walking into a trap as Mr Johnson tries to spare himself any blame for the Brexit chaos.

Edinburgh, Manchester, Belfast and even the Isle of Man were considered as potential venues for the meeting as Downing Street wanted to avoid the full glare of the media.

Their lunchtime discussions are expected to last between an hour and 90 minutes.

Afterwards the two leaders may issue a joint statement and a photograph of the encounter. However, it is far from certain that they will find any common ground.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Sources said Mr Varadkar is conscious of Downing Street's treatment of German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this week.

Members of Mr Johnson's backroom team briefed that she effectively pulled the plug on any chance of a Brexit deal being achieved.

There is a growing sense in Europe that an extension is now the only viable option, but sources in Dublin said: "A lot of people are making that assumption, but it's dangerous. An extension can't be taken for granted. If there is any chance of still getting a deal then we must try."

Meanwhile, the DUP said a Northern Ireland-only backstop with Stormont being handed an opt-out vote is a "non-runner".

Reports from Brussels suggest the EU could offer the arrangement as a way to break the Brexit impasse.

According to the Times, the EU may be willing to accept a Northern Ireland backstop - with the region remaining in the single market for goods and the customs union - and allow Stormont to vote after a set period on whether it wants to exit the mechanism.

Significantly, it was reported that any vote to leave the backstop would require the consent of both the nationalist and the unionist community in the region.

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EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

The DUP's Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson rejected the idea, claiming it would hand Sinn Fein a veto.

"This proposal by the European Union comes as no surprise," he said. "It has already been ruled out by the United Kingdom Government. Parliament has been clear that such proposals would never be approved. It is not a serious proposal and should not be treated as such. It is a non-runner.

"Whilst the United Kingdom Government has put forward sensible and realistic proposals, it is disappointing that the European Union has retreated to its previous failed plans.

"This proposal not only rewrites, but actually turns the Belfast Agreement's consent mechanism on its head.

"The United Kingdom must leave the European Union as one country and any decision to enter into regulatory alignment must have the consent of both unionists and nationalists.

"Any proposal which would see the imposition of customs duties for goods moving within the United Kingdom could never be accepted by any UK Government, Parliament or anyone interested in the economic wellbeing of Northern Ireland."

Sinn Fein said they remain opposed to Mr Johnson's plan.

Speaking in Brussels after meeting with EU officials at the European Parliament, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill MLA said that "any return to customs checks and borders of the past on our island would be a serious retrograde step".

"The North cannot withstand exclusion from the single market and customs union," she said.

"I have made our position clear that any notion of a Stormont veto, lock or block on when or how a backstop and legal guarantee would be applied is unrealistic and a non-runner.

"Sinn Féin will continue to work with the other pro-remain parties, the Irish government and the EU to defend business and to protect people's jobs and livelihoods at every turn."

Alliance Brexit spokesperson Stephen Farry MLA said giving the Assembly a 'double majority' veto on whether Northern Ireland remains in the backstop would just add more divisions to the already fragile institutions.

The North Down MLA said such a device would also effectively ignore the growing number of people in the community who designate as neither.

He said that "effectively giving a veto to either unionists or nationalists over that is unacceptable".

He said it would add "a new layer of tension and division injected into an already fragile and often dysfunctional Assembly, when such existential questions about special arrangements should be a matter for the UK Government and the EU".

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