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Theresa May to visit Dublin on Friday as EU reaffirms solidarity with Ireland

The British Prime Minister Theresa May will visit Dublin on Friday evening for Brexit talks, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar was speaking after his meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels this afternoon.

Leo Varadkar talks to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker before their meeting at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels today. Photo: AP/Francisco Seco.

Mrs May will be travelling to Brussels tomorrow to meet EU leaders in a bid to break the Brexit impasse.

"I'll be meeting Prime Minister May; she'll be coming to Dublin on Friday evening, and we'll have dinner together," the Taoiseach said.

"It's an opportunity as well to discuss the situation and work together to chart a way forward."

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Mr Juncker said the Withdrawal Agreement was not open for renegotiation and that the backstop is needed for "obvious, vital reasons".

"The backstop is a guarantee for Ireland and it is a guarantee for the European Union because the Irish border is a European border," he said.

Mr Juncker said the EU "could not accept the idea which has been circulated around that the Withdrawal Agreement could be reopened".

He said alternative arrangements "can never replace the backstop" and also rejected giving the UK a way to unilaterally pull out of the backstop.

"A safety net is not a safety net if it can be destroyed by the unilateral actions of one of the parties," he said.

Speaking alongside the European Commission president, the Taoiseach concurred that they continue to stand by the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop.

"The Withdrawal Agreement let's not forget is already compromise. It was co-designed with the British Government, contains large elements that they designed and requested," he said.

"Of course we will always listen to suggestions that the UK Government has to make, particularly in relation to the joint Political Declaration on the future relationship, but that is very much in the context of the future relationship."

I'm confident that a solution can be found, but we should bear in mind that the threat of no deal is not a threat that the European Union is making, it is not a threat that Ireland is making.

"This March 29 deadline is a deadline set in Britain by Britain and it is open to the UK to request an extension to Article 50, provided there's a purpose to that, or to revoke Article 50 if that's their wish."

He dismissed the Commons vote for "alternative arrangements" to replace the backstop, claiming the Westminster majority for it "probably only exists because alternative arrangements can mean whatever you want them to mean".

"I don't believe that would have passed if people actually had to get into the detail of what alternative arrangements might mean or might not mean," he said.

Any work on finding alternative arrangements "cannot be done in such a way that deletes the backstop", he added.

In response to their comments, Downing Street insisted the EU would have to give ground in order for a deal to be agreed.

"Leo Varadkar said that they want the UK to leave with a deal, Donald Tusk said earlier today their priority is avoiding no deal," Theresa May's official spokesman said.

"The fact is that the deal that was on the table has been rejected by 230 votes.

"So if, as they state, they wish for us to leave with a deal there are going to have to be changes made in order to address concerns which MPs have on the backstop."

In a further joint statement issued earlier following their meeting today, Mr Juncker and the Taoiseach reiterated that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation and is "the best and only deal possible".

They said the backstop "is a necessary legal guarantee to protect peace and to ensure there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland", as well as protecting the single market and customs union.

"The Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, is a balanced compromise, representing a good outcome for citizens and businesses on all sides, including in Northern Ireland," the statement said,

The backstop is not a bilateral issue, but a European one. Ireland's border is also the border of the European Union and its market is part of the Single Market. We will stay united on this matter.

The said that they would be "stepping up" their preparation for a no-deal scenario while continuing to seek an agreement on the "orderly withdrawal" of the UK.

"The Commission stands ready to support Ireland in finding solutions answering the specific challenges that Ireland and Irish citizens, farmers and businesses will face. We will work closely together to this end over the coming weeks.

"We will continue to remind the Government of the United Kingdom of its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement, with or without a deal," they concluded.

Earlier: Varadkar: Brexit agreement remains best deal possible

The EU is open to further discussion with the UK Government on Brexit but the Withdrawal Agreement remains “the best deal possible”, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar was speaking in Brussels on Wednesday as he discussed preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit with EU leaders.

Speaking alongside EU Council president Donald Tusk, Mr Varadkar said: “While we’re open to further discussions with the UK, the Withdrawal Agreement which was negotiated in good faith, over many months and agreed by 28 governments including that of the UK, stands.

“It remains the best deal possible.”

In relation to the Irish backstop, he added: “While we expect that the backstop will never be used, we agreed again today that it is needed as a legal guarantee to ensure that there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland while protecting the integrity of our European single market and customs union.

“I think the events in London and the instability in British politics in recent weeks demonstrates exactly why we need a legal guarantee and a solution that is operable, that we know will work and will last.”

The EU27 is not making any new offer.

The Taoiseach thanked Mr Tusk for protecting the “hard won peace and stability” on the island of Ireland.

He said that if the UK’s intentions for the future relationship “were to evolve”, the EU would be “prepared to adapt the content and level of ambition in the Political Declaration while respecting its established principles”.

He added he had agreed with Mr Tusk that “in light of the ongoing uncertainty in London and the fast-approaching deadline”, preparations for a no-deal Brexit must intensify.

The Taoiseach made the comments at a press conference following his talks with Mr Tusk, the first of a series of meetings with senior EU representatives.

Donald Tusk: 'Special place in hell' for Brexit leaders without a plan

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

European Council president Donald Tusk has told Brexiteers to tell him "what that special place in hell looks like for people who promoted Brexit without a sketch of an idea" of the consequences.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, left, shakes hands with European Council President Donald Tusk before their talks at the Europa building in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Mr Tusk dropped the bombshell attack on Brexiteers as he separately ruled out any hope of the Brexit referendum being re-run and urged British prime minister Theresa May to explain what she will do.

Speaking during a short press conference in Brussels alongside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mr Tusk said while he is "always" with Remainers "in my heart, the facts are unavoidable"

Saying the lack of a majority for a referendum re-run in Britain and "no leadership" seeking it from Ms May or Labour's Jeremy Corbyn "rules out the option" of a second vote, Mr Tusk said while he "wishes" for the move he cannot ignore the facts.

Mr Tusk said specifically "the EU27 is not making a new offer" and piled pressure on Ms May before her visit to Brussels on Thursday by saying he wants her to bring coherent suggestions on how to end the impasse.

Describing the Irish border as the "top priority" for the EU, Mr Tusk said Brussels "will not gamble" on destroying the peace process and will do "everything in my power" to find a solution.

However, in an explosive final comment which appeared to surprise Mr Varadkar, Mr Tusk added:

"By the way, I was wondering what that special place in hell looks like for people who promoted Brexit without a sketch of an idea of what it would look like."

The pointed remark is certain to provoke an angry response from hardline Brexiteers just 24 hours before Ms May's crunch Brussels meetings on Thursday.

It is also likely to have been designed to push middle-ground politicians in Britain into realising there is unlikely to be any movement from the EU and that they must choose between "hell" or the already on offer withdrawal deal.

Speaking during the same press conference, Mr Varadkar said the current drama in British politics shows why Ireland needs the backstop insurance policy.

The Taoiseach said after meeting with Mr Tusk he has been assured "the EU will remain united" on backing Ireland.

In an apparent reference to ongoing Brexiteer calls to alter the backstop, Mr Varadkar added that while he "hopes" the withdrawal agreement will eventually be ratified by Westminster it is essential to realise it must also be backed by the European Parliament.

Mr Varadkar will meet European Parliament Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier later this afternoon, before a further no deal Brexit planning meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Taoiseach in Brussels to intensify Brexit plans in case of no deal

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will hold a series of key meetings in Brussels today with 51 days to go before a potential no deal crash out Brexit.

Mr Varadkar is expected to meet with European Council president Donald Tusk this morning, after which both politicians are due to publicly re-commit to the EU's no hard border stance and backstop support.

The Taoiseach will then hold high-level talks with Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and European Parliament Brexit steering group chair Guy Verhofstadt alongside EU commissioner Phil Hogan.

He will follow this with a further behind-closed-doors meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on no deal emergency plans this afternoon.

In a statement before leaving for Brussels, Mr Varadkar said:

"The withdrawal agreement is the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal by the UK.

"We want the future relationship between the EU and the UK to be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible so that the backstop will never be needed.

"However, given the ongoing uncertainty in London, we are intensifying our planning for all scenarios, including a no-deal exit.

"My visit is an opportunity to exchange views on the detailed contingency planning underway at both domestic and EU level, and to explore what supports might be needed."

It is understood Mr Varadkar will press home the need for ongoing EU support during the meetings, alongside long-flagged calls for Brussels to relax state aid rules for companies to help Ireland cope with a no deal Brexit crisis.