Latest: Creation of EU military defence pact does not threaten Ireland's neutrality - Varadkar

Update 12.58pm: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted the creation of the new PESCO EU military defence pact does not threaten Ireland's neutrality - despite saying new threats must be dealt with in "an inclusive way" and that Europe is "worth defending", writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith in Strasbourg.

During a detailed speech on the EU's future in Strasbourg, France, Mr Varadkar said while there is concern over the PESCO group he and the Government continues to hold neutrality in high esteem and that this will not change.

However, he risked sparking fresh questions over Ireland's exact role in the new PESCO organisation by saying it is time all parties in European "come together to deal with new threats in an inclusive way".

"A Europe worth building is a Europe worth defending. With the launch of PESCO in December, which Ireland was pleased to join, we are coming together to deal with new threats in an inclusive way.

"The threats we face in the 21st century include cyber terrorism, cyber attacks, international terrorism, uncontrolled mass migration, natural disasters, and drug and human trafficking. We want to be involved in European actions against all of these.

"Ireland also has a proud history of military neutrality, participation in UN peacekeeping operations, EU common security defence policy operations and non-membership of NATO.

"So, we will participate in PESCO in ways consistent with those traditions," Mr Varadkar said.

Photo: AP/Jean-Francois Badias

In early December, the Dáil voted in favour of Ireland joining PESCO by 75 votes to 42, with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil backing the plan.

Several political parties warned at the time the vote was being "rammed" through in the days before Christmas, and that PESCO will undermine Ireland's neutrality over time.

The concern was increased by European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, who in a message on Twitter published a military-style video about PESCO and described the defence plan as the "sleeping beauty of the Lisbon treaty" which is now "awake".

Update 12.46pm: Taoiseach dismisses suggestions of role in anti-Brexit plots

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has denied he is involved in a "plot" to undermine and cancel Britain's departure from the EU, saying any decision to u-turn on Brexit can only be made by the British public, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith in Strasbourg.

Mr Varadkar was responding to claims by high-profile Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage that he, former British prime minister Tony Blair and others are trying to "force the Brits to do it again" because "you know others" will leave if Brexit goes ahead.

Speaking at a special debate on the future of the EU at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Varadkar - who was the first national leader to attend the new debates system - thanked the EU for its "solidarity" with Ireland over Brexit, and stressed there can be "no back-sliding" on a soft border.

While acknowledging difficulties in the existing EU, Mr Varadkar said the rise of "populism" and extremism shows the need to ensure "the European ideal has been tested but not broken".

Mr Varadkar's comments were widely welcomed by European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker and European Parliament chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt, the latter of whom said simply that "we are all Irish" when it comes to Brexit.

However, they were rounded on by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who provoked cheers and boos in equal measure in the parliament by attacking the Taoiseach's views.

After labelling Mr Varadkar as "a European unionist, whatever the cost to Ireland" and only being "popular" in the European Parliament because "you're useful because you've helped with the delay of Brexit", Mr Farage accused Mr Varadkar of being involved in a "plot" to undermine Britain's departure from the EU.

"You are part of course of a bigger attempt to prevent Brexit. You don't want Britain to leave because you know others will too.

"I don't want a second referendum on Brexit, absolutely not, but I fear you're all working together with [Tony] Blair and [former Liberal Democrats leader, Nick] Clegg. If you force the Brits to do it again, there'll be a different outcome," he said.

The claim has been repeatedly made by hardline Brexit supporters in recent months due to the ongoing difficulties in agreeing a deal between Britain and the EU.

However, speaking to reporters after the debate alongside European Parliament president Antonio Tajani, Mr Varadkar insisted no "plot" exists.

"I've never met Tony Blair and I'm certainly not involved in any plot for a second referendum.

"I don’t think it would be constructive or helpful for the leader of another country to be advising that other country on whether they should or should not have a second vote. It has to be a matter for the UK parliament and the people of the United Kingdom.

"A decision on a second referendum must only be one made by parliament or UK people it may be counter-productive," Mr Varadkar said, adding it is "entirely up to them".

Asked about the possibility of a second referendum during the same press conference, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said: "If the British want to change their position, fine, I agree."

On Tuesday, both European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk said "our door is still open" if Britain wants to u-turn on Brexit and hold a second referendum.

A poll in Britain yesterday found while 38% of people want a second referendum compared to 51% who do not, the split narrows to 40%-42% when it comes to a referendum on the eventual Brexit deal.

Earlier 10.27am: 'There can be no backsliding' in Brexit negotiations, Taoiseach tells European Parliament

The Taoiseach has told the European Parliament that we are at a decisive point for Europe.

Leo Varadkar is addressing MEPs on the future of Europe.

He said it is hard to imagine the Good Friday Agreement being made without Ireland’s membership of the EU.

"In Ireland we are now having to contemplate our future without the foundation that underpinned it," he said.

Leo Varadkar addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on the future of Europe. Photos: The European Parliament/PA Wire

"That is why the Irish Government has been so determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts, and in all that flows from it.

"It is why we have insisted that there can be no return to a hard border on our island, no new barriers to the movement of people or to trade.

"The EU has consistently recognised the unique position of Northern Ireland, and the unique situation in which it has been put by the decision of the UK to leave the EU."

He added: "The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU; the majority of its representatives elected to the Northern Ireland assembly want to remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market; and it is likely that the majority of people living in Northern Ireland will remain European citizens after Brexit, because of their unique status as dual Irish/British citizens under the Good Friday Agreement."

Leo Varadkar made it clear that commitments in the Brexit negotiations so far need to be upheld.

"As the negotiations move forward, we will continue to rely on your support and solidarity as we work to ensure that what has been promised in theory is delivered in practice. There can be no backsliding.

"So, it is important that these commitments in the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, and firmly embedded in the UK’s future relationship with the EU, whatever shape that ultimately takes.

"For my part, I hope that it will be as close and deep as possible and consistent with the need for the Union to protect our internal market and the Customs Union."

- Digital Desk


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