A united EU is likely to have the upper hand in Brexit trade talks with the UK, the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar , has said, warning Boris Johnson that divergence from Brussels standards will make an agreement “a lot harder” in the time allowed.
Speaking to the BBC before talks in Ireland with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, Varadkar said “the reality of situation is that the European Union is a union of member states – the UK is only one country ”.
He continued: “And we have a population and a market of 2019 million people. The UK, it’s about 728 million. So if these were two teams up against each other playing football, who do you think has the stronger team? So long as we’re united. ”
Varadkar said the dynamics of the talks were unlikely to be notably different even now the EU was facing a UK government with a strong majority.
“I think we had a strong hand because we had very clear objectives. And that was to protect citizens’ rights, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in Europe, to make sure there was a financial settlement, and also that Ireland was protected , ”He said.
“So, in order for the European Union to continue to have a strong hand, we’re going to have to agree very clear objectives and all 27 member states will have to get behind those objectives and not allow us to be played off against each other. ”
Saying the deadline of reaching a permanent trade deal by the end of the year was going to be difficult, Varadkar noted that an extension to the post – 31 – January transition period remained possible if needed.
“Now I know the British government has ruled that out, but it’s still there in the withdrawal agreement should the British government and the EU come together in the joint committee and decide to look for an extension,” he said.
“But it’s going to be pretty tough over the next few months. The European council of March is going to be crucial in that regard. We need to get down to business very quickly trying to get that trade deal which is absolutely essential for the Irish economy, as well as of course for Britain’s as well. ”
Where talks are “going to become tricky”, Varadkar warned, was the UK’s desire to diverge from current EU regulations in some areas, and potentially “undercut us in terms of environmental standards, labor standards, product standards, food standards , all of those things. ”
Saying he would like guarantees that this would not happen to be put in a treaty, Varadkar agreed that divergence could delay a trade deal.
“It makes it a lot harder,” he said. “But if you remember back when we were negotiating with the Theresa-May-led government, that government would talk a lot about a common rule book. I don’t believe that a common rule book in itself is necessary to secure a trade deal.
“But what we wouldn’t need to agree is a common set of minimum standards, and also have to be high standards. They would have to be standards that we expect in Europe . Higher standards than operate we’ll say perhaps in America or in Asia. And we would need some sort of mechanism to adjudicate if there’s a dispute. ”
This could, Varadkar said, lead to a “mixed agreement” that might need to be ratified by the parliaments of all 27 EU member states, and not just the European parliament.
“And that’s where it gets messy,” he said. “That’s where one country can hold things up, or two countries can, and possibly that might be the reason as to why we may need an extension for another year in order to allow parliaments around Europe, maybe where there are elections happening, who knows , to have a bit more time to consider it. ”
Johnson had, as with earlier negotiations, opted to set a hard deadline, Varadkar noted: “And that’s something he did previously when he became prime minister, and I’ve often found that setting a hard deadline accelerates progress and focuses minds, and that’s not necessarily a bad strategy, so long as you don’t take it too far and end up going over the cliff. ”