Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has called for unique solutions to preserve the relationship between the UK and the European Union after Brexit. On his first official visit to Northern Ireland, he raised the possibility of a bilateral UK-EU customs union, and described Brexit as the challenge of this generation.
In response, the UK Government said it wanted a special partnership with the EU, including an ambitious free trade agreement and a customs agreement.
Speaking to an invited audience at Queen's University, Belfast, Mr Varadkar said: Every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by Brexit.
Those who favor a hard Brexit have already had 14 months to come up with a plan, he warned. If they cannot, and I believe they cannot, we can then talk meaningfully about solutions that might work for all of us, he said.
”The Brexit negotiations are well under way in Brussels. And, to quote (EU chief Brexit negotiator) Michel Barnier, the clock is ticking.”
Mr Varadkar offered two of his own suggestions:
a) The possibility of an EU-UK customs union if the UK wants to remain in the customs union
b) A deep free trade agreement with the EU if the UK does not want to stay in the single market, with the possibility of its rejoining EFTA (European Free Trade Association)
The taoiseach referred to the lack of input into the Brexit debate from Northern Ireland due to the collapse of the Stormont executive, and urged politicians to do a deal to restore power-sharing.
We need an answer to the question of who we - and others in Europe - talk to in Belfast, he said. Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people?
Mr Varadkar said: It will come as no surprise to anyone here that I do not want there to be an economic border on our island, nor do I want one between Ireland and Britain.
By economic border, I am not talking about currency or variation in tax rates. I am talking about a barrier to free trade and commerce.
In response, the UK Government said no-one wanted a return to a hard border.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said 17.4m people voted to leave the EU and that meant leaving the single market and customs union.
We know perfectly well that there are heads of member states that did not like the Brexit result, the Conservative MP told BBC Radio 4's World at One.
We know that the political establishment in Dublin is not happy with the fact that the UK voted to leave the EU. But all these stories surrounding the border are massively exaggerated when we have modern technology.”