What Will Leo Varadkar Do Next?

Before the EU referendum, pollsters found that immigration was the number one concern for voters. The economy, public services and British sovereignty were frequently mentioned. One topic that received scant discussion, though, was the Irish border. As negotiations have progressed, however, it’s rearing its head, to become one of the thorniest factors in our withdrawal from the EU.

As the failure to reach a deal in Brussels this week on “sufficient progress” demonstrated, Theresa May’s situation is impossible. Adopting a hard Brexit – i.e. leaving the single market and customs union – requires a border between the UK and other EU member states. That might not be a concern for mainland Britain thanks to our island status, but across the sea it will result in a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Conservatives are committed to a soft border, as are their partners in the DUP. Both parties, however, remain committed to a hard Brexit.

These positions are incompatible. It’s a ‘cake and eat it’ stance of the type that’s become exasperatingly familiar during Brexit talks – we want to leave, but we don’t want any of the problems that incurs. Proposed solutions like virtual customs feel like fantasy policies, and Labour’s Kate Hoey sounded practically Trump-esque when she said the Republic should pay for a border.

Along with citizens’ rights and our divorce bill, the Irish border question must be settled when May meets EU leaders next week before we can progress to phase two of negotiations. Already involved in the detail of the negotiation, this will be a moment of maximum leverage for Ireland’s PM Leo Varadkar.

The final Brexit deal will probably be determined by Qualified Majority Voting (QMV), meaning that if 15 of the EU27 are satisfied then the deal is done, whether Varadkar approves or not. This months’ talks, however, require unanimity. Even if every other country is happy, Varadkar can block proceedings. This is his chance to get something in blood re: the border.

It depends how he plays the politics. With relations with the British sour after the dispute over the negotiation text in Brussells where the British effectively accused him of lying, there will be little love lost between him and May. He’ll be under pressure to not hold talks back – Britain are keen to move on, and the EU27 won’t be keen to spend any more time haggling with Boris Johnson than necessary. One potential compromise would be for Varadkar to convince the EU council to make the final deal subject to unanimity. Talks would progress, but Ireland would maintain their leverage.

Varadkar is simply holding Britain to account for its impossible referendum pledges

This is desirable for a number of reasons. Varadkar’s in trouble at home: he only just staved off his government’s collapse, and although he’s currently clinging on, an election will happen eventually. Opinion polls give him a slight lead, so it's likely he'd remain where he is - lacking a majority, and relying on a confidence and supply deal with Fianna Fail. Still, his polling has dipped - he's been especially criticised for supporting Frances Fitzgerald, who resigned over her handling of whistleblowers. Failing to prevent a border would further damage Varadkar. Sinn Fein, especially, would hammer him over it.

Historically, foreign wars have boosted leaders’ fortunes in the face of domestic trouble. Obviously, opposing Brexit isn’t quite ‘going to war’, but it’d still help Varadkar to be seen sticking it to us foolhardy Brits. It would also make it clear that Ireland isn’t going down with Britain – despite our ties, their future is outward-looking anA hard border would be even more detrimental for Northern Ireland. It would end the common travel area, which allows people and businesses to move freely between the North and the Republic. It would also alter the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which calmed tensions by keeping Northern Ireland in the UK whilst respecting nationalist sentiment and the country’s links to its southern neighbour.

Even the Brexit-supporting DUP recognised these risks. Yet rather than question their own foolishness in agitating for something that now poses such problems, their leader Arlene Foster instead turned on Varadkar, accusing him of being “reckless” and “using Northern Ireland to get the maximum deal for [his] citizens”.  


Is he? Or is he just recognising what Brexiters failed to – that a hard Brexit without a hard border is impossible. The whole idea behind Article 50 is that the EU and the countries within it look after their own interests if a member state leaves; Ireland have no responsibility to suffer because of the UK’s decision. Varadkar is simply holding Britain to account for its impossible referendum pledges. He proves that Ireland are thinking harder about Brexit than Britain. They’re asking the questions we should have asked.

When concerns about Ireland’s border were raised during the referendum, voters were fobbed off with promises that the government would sort it, or that the EU would give us whatever we wanted despite the rules “because we’re Great Britain!” As is often the case, Northern Ireland simply wasn’t a consideration for mainland Brits. It certainly wasn’t enough to swing the referendum. Funnily enough, though, it could be the issue that disrupts Brexit.

Here’s a little imaginary scenario… Varadkar ensures that the final Brexit deal requires unanimity. Although May negotiates deals on trade and citizens’ rights, she doesn’t resolve the border issue. Varadkar vetoes. This takes May’s deal off the table and leaves Britain crashing out with no deal. That isn’t ideal for Varadkar – no deal also results in a hard border – but since there is no majority in Parliament for crashing out of the EU, they could then vote against no deal.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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