'Backstop' change not on table to help May, says Varadkar

The Border backstop “is not on the table” as part of renewed efforts to get Brexit over the line, the Taoiseach has insisted.

Speaking at yet another EU leaders’ summit, Mr Varadkar said the backstop would protect Irish interests in the immediate crux – and in any future talks on a big-picture EU-UK trade deal after Brexit.

Mr Varadkar, who had earlier met British Prime Minister Theresa May, said efforts to get the London parliament to ratify a deal would centre on “explanations, assurances and clarifications”.

For the moment, the assurances are political but the Taoiseach notably did not rule out some kind of legal device.

Mr Varadkar’s meeting with Mrs May was supposed to happen in Dublin on Wednesday but had to be postponed amid high political drama in London. Though Mrs May beat a no-confidence motion tabled by her Conservative Party colleagues, the draft Brexit Withdrawal Agreement remains as far away as ever from the necessary approval of her MPs.

The Taoiseach insisted all EU leaders were totally agreed that the EU-UK deal cannot be re-opened in efforts to overcome British lawmakers’ hostility.

But every effort would be made by the EU to help the UK MPs understand and hopefully support the draft deal.

“I can tell you the backstop is not on the table. It needs to be there for a number of reasons,” the Taoiseach said on his way into the EU summit meeting.

“It needs to be there to give us the assurance that there will be no hard Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, thus protecting the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,” he continued.

“It needs to be there for European reasons as well, giving Europe the assurance that the open Border will not become the backdoor to the single market,” the Taoiseach added.

The 27 EU leaders listened to the latest thinking by Mrs May on the issue after the events at Westminster. Afterwards, the leaders met without Mrs May to consider their response, and the next moves.

EU leaders were keen to show goodwill to Mrs May but equally adamant there can be no re-opening of talks on the deal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more diplomatic than French President Emmanuel Macron, who outright dismissed the question of further discussions.

Ms Merkel said they must speak with Mrs May and decide how to help.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said it was difficult to know what the EU should give Mrs May to help the deal clear parliament. “Not all the arguments of Brexit supporters are rational,” he said.

Mrs May told reporters that there would be no early Brexit breakthrough.

Any new efforts to re-run a vote in Westminster are not now expected until January as the clock counts down towards the March 29 Brexit deadline.

“I recognise the strength of concern in the House of Commons and that is what I will be putting to colleagues today,” Mrs May said on her way into the summit.

“I don’t expect an immediate breakthrough, but what I do hope is that we can start work as quickly as possible on the assurances that are necessary,” she added.

Draft texts circulating at the Brussels conference centre suggested that what was on offer will not help the embattled Mrs May. The text stresses that a new EU-UK trade deal is preferred over triggering the Irish backstop.

Efforts would be made to do a deal swiftly, even if the emergency Border fix has to kick in for a time. Such words will not impress in Westminster.

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