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Leo Varadkar speaking in 2015.
Photograph: Department of Health, Flickr

Only a few weeks into his mandate as Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar has shown his true colours in regards to Brexit. Unlike his predecessor Enda Kenny, who lobbied across EU capitals for recognition of the Republic of Ireland’s “special” relationship with the UK, Varadkar traveled to Northern Ireland, where he lectured his audiences about the perceived dangers of Brexit.

Speaking at Queen’s University in Belfast, Varadkar repeated EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s jab that the “clock is ticking” on UK-EU talks. This echoed the tone in a statement he made the week before, claiming that the Republic of Ireland was “not going to design a border for the Brexiteers”. In stark contrast to Kenny’s more conciliatory approach, recognizing that Ireland’s close relationship with the UK predates European integration, the current Taoiseach comes off as bitter, almost hoping that Brexit talks fall through.

Varadkar would do well to remember his nation’s history. When the Irish Free State seceded from the UK in 1922, both nations’ home offices were quick to establish an agreement allowing free movement across the 310-mile border between the North and the rest of Ireland. Called the Common Travel Area (CTA), it has set the tone of border relations in the British Isles for almost a century, including the joint decision to opt-out of the Schengen Area. Instead, the UK and Ireland have administered passport and immigration controls together for decades.

In addition to preexisting border agreements, the UK and the Republic of Ireland have a longstanding and deeply integrated economic relationship. The UK is the second largest importer of Irish exports (after the United States), and Ireland’s top source of imports.

The Taoiseach’s recent statements betray a shallow appreciation for his nation’s context. His nonchalant brinkmanship is cause for concern, not only for economic reasons, but for the many families dependent upon free movement across the island. If Varadkar cares about his country’s economic and social well-being, he should cease treating these people like a political shuttlecock, and adopt a more constructive approach to Brexit talks. Rather than cross his arms and lament the democratic choice of Britons, Varadkar needs to mature as a political representative and deal with his neighbours in good faith.


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