Irish PM says EU has upper hand in Brexit trade talks with UK

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the European Union will have the upper hand in trade talks with the United Kingdom as the bloc’s chief negotiator warned of the risk of a disruptive cliff-edge Brexit for business at the end of the year.

Britain leaves the EU on Friday and the two sides will formally begin trade talks in the coming weeks during a “business as usual” transition period that ends in December.

Varadkar, in an interview with the BBC, compared the two sides to soccer teams and suggested that the EU would have the “stronger team” due to its larger population and market. He also questioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s timetable of striking a deal by the end of the year, the BBC reported.

“The European Union is a union of 27 member states. The UK is only one country. And we have a population and a market of 450 million people,” he told the BBC. When asked about Johnson’s aim of getting a deal by the end of 2020, he said: “It will be difficult to do this”.

To get a trade deal, the United Kingdom would have to give legal assurances it would not undercut the EU, Varadkar said.

Varadkar met EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Dublin. Barnier stressed that the level of access UK products can continue to enjoy will be proportionate to the commitments London makes on EU rules, particularly in relation to state aid.

“It is Britain’s choice,” Barnier told a joint news conference with Varadkar. “If we have no agreement, it will not be business as usual and the status quo, we have to face the risk of a cliff edge, in particular for trade.”

Varadkar said there will be have to be some checks on goods going from Britain into Northern Ireland, despite Johnson’s repeated insistence that these will not be needed.

Johnson’s willingness to allow some EU regulations to apply in British-ruled Northern Ireland to prevent the need for a border on the island was the crucial concession he offered last year to obtain a withdrawal deal with the bloc. After agreeing that deal, he called an election and won a strong majority.

Barnier said the EU will “very carefully” watch over the implementation of the agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol. EU officials also expressed concern.

“Trade talks is one thing but there is also the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. If the latter doesn’t go well, how could we trust them to meet their obligations under any future FTA (free trade agreement)?” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters.

Varadkar himself faces voters in an election on Feb. 8. Polls have shown his Fine Gael party trailing its main rivals, Fianna Fail.

(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Michael Holden and Peter Graff)

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