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10 October 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:13am

Why Boris Johnson’s meeting with Leo Varadkar is unlikely to lead to any progress on Brexit

It isn't a question of each side giving an inch, but of two fundamentally irreconcilable positions on customs and the Irish border. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Is Boris Johnson going to make a breakthrough on his Brexit proposals in his meeting with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar today?

It’s tempting to imagine that  the answer could somehow be yes: that the hostile briefing to the Spectator that the Conservatives won’t seek a deal again has pushed the Irish leader to concede a little more, that Boris Johnson’s charm could achieve miracles, that as we reach what really feels like crunch time, this high-stakes lunch at a mysterious location in the north-west could just see both leaders give a little more on the Irish border question until a glimmer of a deal is in sight.

But there are several facts that indicate that this won’t be the case, even without getting into the substance of the two leaders’ fundamentally irreconcilable positions on customs. The Irish government maintains a very clear position that it will not negotiate directly with the UK: negotiations can only take place via the EU taskforce led by Michel Barnier, who has himself been very clear that a breakthrough is unlikely. The Irish government has been clear that this meeting will largely be devoted to the “process” for negotiating a Brexit deal, and isn’t really a space for hashing out a compromise.

Secondly, all of the circumstances around this meeting are as low-stakes as possible. While the UK government is peddling optimism, Irish and European sources are playing down any expectations of progress: the fact that the location hasn’t been disclosed and there is to be no press conference only confirms the lack of expected breakthrough. 

It’s safe to assume that Varadkar and Johnson will discuss, to some extent, the two main impediments to achieving a deal, regardless of what the meeting is officially about. But, as we already know, it isn’t a question of each side giving an inch, but of two fundamentally irreconcilable positions on customs and the Irish border. 

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Varadkar has indicated he is open to discussing various mechanisms to attain the consent of the Northern Irish institutions, but on the substantive issue of customs checks between the North and South, he has been clear that nothing Johnson has proposed so far would be acceptable to the Republic, and is Johnson likely to make any concessions that would be without scuppering his hope of a majority for it in the Commons.

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I’d like to say I believe in miracles, but my best guess is that nothing will come out of today’s mysterious summit. This is much more about Varadkar being seen to work constructively with the UK, in anticipation of a bitter blame-game, than any serious chance of a deal.