Ireland’s premier has raised the possibility of delaying Brexit to allow more time to negotiate the UK’s exit deal.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said extending the March 29 departure date is one of a number of “different scenarios” that could be pursed if a withdrawal agreement fails to materialise in the coming months.
In an interview with Irish broadcaster TV3, Mr Varadkar also raised the prospect of scheduling an extra EU Council summit this year if sufficient progress is not made by October’s crunch meeting.
The autumn summit is seen by many as an effective deadline for a withdrawal treaty to be sealed ahead of ratification by member states.
An exit deal is seemingly still a distance away. The EU and UK remain at odds over the shape of a “backstop” position to maintain free movement at the Irish border, if a wider trade deal is not ultimately agreed, with Prime Minister Theresa May struggling to secure consensus within her own Cabinet.
Mr Varadkar said while his government was making contingency plans for a hard Brexit, he insisted that preparatory work did not include for the provision of infrastructure on the 310-mile frontier with Northern Ireland.
When the UK formally notified the EU in March 2017 of its intention to leave the union – by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty – a two-year deadline for its exit was automatically set.
Stressing that a no-deal scenario is still hypothetical, Mr Varadkar added: “You’ll know that there are a number of different scenarios that could arise if we’re in a no-deal situation.
“For example, it is possible to extend Article 50, to allow more time for negotiations to take place. There is the possibility of an interim deal, or a transition period, pending an outcome or final negotiations around the transition period.
“But one of our red lines – and this should be no surprise to anyone – is that we cannot countenance a hard border with physical infrastructure, with customs and checks – all of those things – between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“That would be an abrogation of the Good Friday Agreement, a solemn agreement we made 20 years ago, and a legal agreement that is registered with the United Nations, signed by the United Kingdom Government.”
On the prospect on an additional EU Council summit, something suggested by his predecessor as taoiseach Enda Kenny, Mr Varadkar said: “Enda Kenny in his speech made a very valid point.
“I’ve heard some people talking about the possibility of a crunch late-night meeting in Brussels in late October, something akin to a last-minute budget compromise or a Fisheries Council.
“That, of course, as he pointed out, will not be the case – because when the EU member states, the 27 of us, discuss Brexit, we discuss it without the UK in the room. So this won’t be a drafting session – we’ll have to have agreement in advance of the summit in October.
“Enda Kenny suggested that if we aren’t in a position to do that, we may need an extra meeting – perhaps in September or October, or even after that, in November. I think that was a very helpful suggestion that will have to be considered.
“(It’s) too soon to make a decision on that, but we’ll have to consider it in the months ahead.”