Irish premier calls for ‘level playing field’ over Brexit negotiations

By Cate McCurry, PA

Irish premier Leo Varadkar has said that there has to be a level playing field in the Brexit negotiations to ensure the single market and customs union are “not diluted”.

The Taoiseach said there must be a common minimum standard so the United Kingdom does not attempt to “undercut” the EU over its labour and environmental standards.

Mr Varadkar said the Brexit negotiations has reached the halfway point, adding that the next step is to negotiate a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU.

He made the comments as the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen visited Ireland for the first time in her current role.

Mr Varadkar said he wanted to restate Ireland’s appreciation for the EU’s solidarity on Brexit.

During Wednesday evening’s discussions, Mr Varadkar and Ms Von der Leyen will discuss Brexit and the European Green Deal.

Mr Varadkar said: “I really want to restate Ireland’s deep appreciation and thanks for the solidarity from the commission and the European institutions and other member states.

“Only as a result of that, we have a Withdrawal Agreement which assures us there is no hard border, that citizens’ rights are protected and the travel area between Britain and Ireland remains in place and that the Good Friday Agreement is protected.

“We saw a real demonstration of that in the fact that the institutions in Northern Ireland are now back up and running.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as he welcomes her to Government Buildings, Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I always felt removing uncertainty around Brexit was one of the crucial ingredients that is required to get the parties together again,” Mr Varadkar said.

“The next step is negotiating a free trade agreement with the UK. When it comes to Brexit it is only half-time, and the next step is to negotiate a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU.

“There also has to be a level playing field so that the single market and the customs union are not diluted.

“We must have common minimum standards so that the UK doesn’t attempt in any way to undercut the EU when it comes to labour and environmental standards.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar sit down for talks at Government Buildings, Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

Speaking in Government Buildings in Dublin, Ms Von der Leyden said the UK will leave the EU in two weeks.

“There’s almost no other country in the European Union that is more affected by this decision than Ireland,” she added.

“That’s why Ireland and Northern Ireland were one of our top priorities during the withdrawal negotiations.

“We do not want a hard border, we delivered that. We’ve said that Ireland will stay at the heart of the European Union.

“I think the withdrawal negotiations and agreement were successful. The EU negotiated respectfully and fairly as we wanted an orderly exit. It’s very important to protect citizens’ rights.

“There are 3.5 million European Union citizens working and living in the UK.

“It’s very good that we have the reassurance that those people can live and work until the end of their lives in the UK.

“This was very important and one of the top priorities was to ensure peace and stability on the island.”

She thanked Mr Varadkar for his work and leadership in the Brexit process, adding that the EU will watch over the implementation of Brexit “very closely”.

Ms Von der Leyen added: “We have a wide-ranging (Brexit) agenda.

“We will have around eight months because the negotiation talks will start at the end of February or beginning of March.

“It’s not only trade, there are a lot of other topics too, including security.

“We have a plan but we have to work very hard to reach our goal.”