Irish said to tell Merkel won't accept no-deal Brexit border

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DUBLIN/BERLIN (Feb 15): Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told German Chancellor Angela Merkel his government couldn’t accept the return of border controls on the island of Ireland even if the U.K. crashed out of the European Union without a deal, a person familiar with the matter said.

At the chancellor’s request, the two leaders held a 40-minute call last month during which Merkel sought to better understand Varadkar’s stance on the question, according to the person, who asked not to be identified as the conversation was private.

EU said to press Ireland for no-deal Brexit border plan

Merkel was concerned that the Irish premier’s position risked undercutting the EU’s negotiating position on the so-called backstop, which is designed to keep the border invisible, according to the person. A refusal by Ireland to police a border could give succor to Brexiteers who argue the backstop isn’t needed because neither side would introduce controls in any case.

If the U.K. tumbles out of the bloc in March without a deal, then the question that has dogged Brexit talks — how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland — becomes an acute crisis. The EU has made clear that Ireland would be expected to police the border with the U.K. as it would become the bloc’s external frontier.

Varadkar explained to Merkel that no Irish government could accept the return of infrastructure on the border, given the risk that checkpoints could become targets for violence, according to the person. The call ended amicably, the person said.

While insiders say that at one point, Varadkar had simply considered the option of refusing to police the border, the government now says it plans to hold talks with the EU and the U.K. on how to avoid infrastructure on the frontier in the event of no-deal.

A spokesman for Varadkar declined to comment on the substance of the call. Speaking in Dublin on Friday, Varadkar said that Ireland would remain at the heart of the EU, adding those who believe the bloc’s unity on Brexit will fracture are in for a “nasty surprise.” Irish Foreign minister Simon Coveney described the prospect of a no-deal Brexit as “crazy.”

Since last month, German efforts to break the impasse over Brexit have intensified. While the bloc is sticking by the so-called backstop arrangement — even though it’s the biggest obstacle to a deal being approved in the U.K. — ideas are being tested to try and help U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May win support at Westminster.

One potential proposal could allow the EU and Britain to continue talks about the border during the transition period, while their future relationship is being negotiated, a person familiar said. 

In that scenario, elements of the backstop such as a time limit could be discussed, depending on how closely the U.K. binds itself to the bloc. 

Another idea could involve fleshing out a set of agreed criteria that could allow the U.K. to exit the backstop, after regular reviews.

However, in both scenarios, the much-hated backstop would remain in the withdrawal agreement. With no guarantee that any tweaks would ensure London would back the deal, the bloc is content to double down on the current deal for now.