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Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar following his meeting with European Commission Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier

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This morning I am very happy to welcome Michel Barnier back to Dublin and also to congratulate him on his reappointment as the EU’s negotiator with the UK.  In this next phase of Brexit, the second half of Brexit you might say, Michel will be focussed on reaching a new comprehensive partnership, including a

free trade agreement, between the European Union and the UK. 

We discussed what a new partnership with the UK might look like and what it will include, knowing that the window of opportunity to negotiate is in fact very short.

The UK will leave the EU at the end of this week. I welcome the fact that Michel has said that he is ready to begin work on the future EU-UK relationship as soon as possible after that.    

We both agreed that it is essential to get this right and to create the best possible framework for working and cooperating with our close neighbour and friend, the UK.  

We discussed some of the particular challenges of Brexit for Ireland in this next phase of negotiations – fishing, agriculture, exporters, the landbridge, aviation, haulage, universities – the list is long. Also the fact that the British and Irish economies are intertwined, and our unique history and geography as a nation. 

I asked Michel, as our negotiator, to continue to look out for our interests in this next phase of Brexit, as he has done to date.  This includes protecting the EU single market, which is of ever-greater importance to our economy here in Ireland.

I told Michel that I was very ambitious about the future EU-UK relationship but that hand in hand with that ambition there has to be realism. We need to start a new relationship between the EU and the UK on a firm and honest footing, and that means a level playing field.  This is very much in Ireland’s interests as

well as that of the European Union as a whole.  I know that he shares this view.

Michel will also be overseeing the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement which we negotiated last year.  I took the opportunity once again to thank him for the fantastic and unswerving solidarity with Ireland. We know in Ireland that solidarity has to go in both directions. So during this next phase of Brexit

Ireland will be on team 27, part of team EU, and we’ll stick together with other Member States during the course of these negotiations.

We also welcomed the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly had been restored and I’m really pleased that Michel will be travelling north after this for some engagements.

Michel understood from very early on that ensuring an orderly UK exit meant protecting the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.  The Withdrawal Agreement meets that objective. 

On February 1st the people of Ireland will wake up to a new day. There will be no hard border between the North and South, the Common Travel Area will remain in place, and the rights of citizens’ will be protected. There will be a transition period allowing us time to negotiate a new partnership with the United Kingdom.

It is going to be very challenging. Time is short. And the negotiating mandate will be agreed at the European council in March. But we’re up for it. And we agreed that it’s as important as ever that we enter the next phase united and in a positive spirit. And we do.

On Friday, the UK is leaving the European Union. We’ll say goodbye to an old friend embarking on an adventure. We hope it works out for them. But if it does not there will always be a seat kept for them at the table.