Varadkar suggests EU-UK customs union

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has promised that the Government will do all it can in the Brexit negotiations to achieve the best outcomes for peace, freedom, rights and prosperity on the island of Ireland.

Mr Varadkar gave a speech at Queen’s University this morning on his first visit to Northern Ireland since becoming Taoiseach.

Calling Brexit the challenge of this generation, he warned that every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by it.

He said the hard Brexiteers who advocated a hard border had to come up with proposals as to how that would work.

“They’ve already had 14 months to do so,” he said.

He again insisted that the Irish Government will not design a hard border for Brexiteers.

Mr Varadkar said a meaningful solution could be the establishment of an EU-UK customs union.

“After all, we have one with Turkey. Surely we can have one with the United Kingdom?” he said.

The Taoiseach also suggested that if the UK does not want to stay in the single market, it could perhaps enter into a deep free trade agreement with the EU and rejoin the European Free Trade Association.

He said if this cannot be agreed now then perhaps there can be a period of transition during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while the issues are worked out.

The Taoiseach echoed a warning by European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier that the “clock is ticking” towards the UK’s planned departure from the EU and warned of the challenges in trying to agree a deal by March 2019.

He also said he hopes sufficient progress can be made on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement between Britain and Europe, and issues relating to Ireland ahead of a European Council meeting in October.

He concluded his speech saying: “At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between North and South, we need to build more bridges and fewer borders.

“I promise I will play my part in helping to do exactly that.”

Later today, Mr Varadkar will hold separate meetings with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties and urge them to restore the power-sharing institutions at Stormont without further delay.

DUP leader Arlene Foster this week described earlier border comments from the Taoiseach as “not helpful” and said she was looking forward to meeting Mr Varadkar to discuss a number of issues.

The SDLP said yesterday that it intends to ensure Mr Varadkar will not sway from his position that there can be no new economic or physical border imposed on the island of Ireland.

Party leader Colum Eastwood also said he will be asking the Taoiseach to become more directly involved in the crisis talks at Stormont aimed at restoring power-sharing.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said his party will be telling Mr Varadkar that the Irish Government has a responsibility to defend the Remain vote.

Mr Adams said the Taoiseach has to challenge any proposals that would see an economic border on the island of Ireland.

The issue of same-sex marriage may also be discussed as Mr Varadkar intends to participate in a gay Pride breakfast event in Belfast tomorrow to promote the rights of the LGBT community.

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