This week, Varadkar came to Washington ahead of a trip to Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day. Some of the optics may be awkward — the Irish leader plans to bring his partner, Matt, to meet Vice President Pence on Thursday. However, the timing may be key. On Tuesday, British lawmakers voted against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The very next day, they voted against a “no-deal Brexit."
Today’s WorldView met with Varadkar on Wednesday, one day ahead of his meetings with the president and the vice president, to ask him about Brexit, Trump and what Britain’s exit from the European Union might mean for Dublin’s relationship with Washington.
The interview below was edited for length and clarity.
TWV: What is your reaction to the votes in London against a “no deal” Brexit on Wednesday?
Leo Varadkar: It’s evident to everyone that the situation is changing rapidly day by day. It’s quite dynamic and, I’m afraid to say, chaotic in London, as far as I am concerned. What happened today in the House of Commons, I think, is that MPs have clearly indicated that they don’t want to leave if there isn’t a deal.
What I hope now is, the possibility that things that had been ruled out months and years ago can be reconsidered. It may be an opportunity now for MPs to think about what Brexit really means. If they change their mind on those issues, such as the Customs Union and the Single Market, I think they’ll receive a very warm and generous response from the E.U.
Would you support some sort of extension to the March 29 deadline for Brexit?
An extension is better than no deal. I think everyone accepts this is a decision that will be made in Brussels by the European Council, of which I am a member. The decision must be made unanimously, so the obvious question that we’re going to want to ask the British government is how long an extension are you seeking, and what is the purpose of it?
What I wouldn’t like is a rolling cliff edge whereby there are a series of extensions. So perhaps instead — I am really only speculating here — a short extension that would allow the deal we’ve agreed to with the British government to be ratified or a much longer extension allowing us to explore a much closer relationship between the U.K. and the E.U. than had been envisaged up to this date.
Are the other E.U. leaders on the same page about this? Obviously, Ireland is very worried about issues like the border with Northern Ireland, for example, but other European nations have differing priorities.
There has been enormous solidarity behind Ireland on the issues of the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the border. A lot of people have predicted that solidarity would break — it hasn’t. The unity in the European Union is undoubted, just as nobody can doubt the extent that disunity now pervades politics in the United Kingdom.
Do you view the U.S.-Ireland relationship differently because of Brexit?
Brexit solidifies Ireland’s position as a reliable partner and a safe place for U.S. companies to invest because we know where we want to be in the world, which is at the heart of the European Union. We believe in free enterprise and free trade. We believe in the multilateral system, and we have a political consensus around that in Ireland.
Potentially, when the U.K. leaves the European Union, we can be a strong partner for the U.S. [in the E.U.] We will always be on team Europe, but we are going to be an English-speaking country — the only one in the European Union — and a country with a very similar business culture to the U.S.
I think potentially Ireland can be a bridge between the E.U. and the United States, which the U.K. can’t be anymore.
A lot of people would argue your administration and the Trump administration have quite different values. How do you reconcile that?
I am not sure I can. We are very different politically, and our governments are very different. We have very different views on social policy and very different views on multilateralism. I don’t think those can be reconciled, but I think that the relationship between Ireland and the U.S. is long-lasting, it’s strong. Governments in Ireland change, and presidents in America change. The job that I have to do and others have to do is to make sure that those things that transcend the administrations or governments that are in power are in place.
One thing that’s really changed about the U.S.-Ireland relationship is that it’s very much a two-way relationship now. Ireland is one of the top 10 investors in the U.S. — unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago. So you know you have jobs, investments, trade going in both directions to the benefit of both. That’s something I’ll be saying to President Trump [on Thursday].
When he proposed his tax reform in 2017, President Trump suggested that the low corporate taxes of Ireland had led many U.S. companies to move there. Have you seen any companies leave Ireland after the U.S. tax reform?
We haven’t seen that. Perhaps more American companies are staying in the United States or are investing more in the United States rather than in Europe. But you know we mentioned earlier some of the political differences between the government that I lead and President Trump’s administration? There are areas of similarity, and one of those is that we believe in pro-enterprise culture. When the U.S. decided to reduce its corporation tax rate, we had no objections with that whatsoever.
There was a lot of speculation that President Trump’s visit to Ireland last year was canceled due to planned protests. Do you think there’s anything Trump could do to make Irish citizens like him more?
I’m actually not sure why it was canceled, but I imagine any visit to Europe and many parts of the world raises the risk of protest for President Trump. I don’t think it would stop him traveling to Britain or France, and I don’t think it’d stop him traveling to Ireland, quite frankly. We have a standing invitation to any U.S. president to visit Ireland.
There are areas in which [Trump] has been quite helpful to Ireland. We had an issue around Aughinish, which is a very big aluminum plant in the West of the country employing hundreds of people that was potentially threatened by sanctions on Russia. The U.S. administration was very helpful in protecting those jobs. They worked with us on immigration issues as well, particularly around regularizing undocumented immigrants who are Irish citizens in the States and easing immigration rules so that some of those Irish people who want to invest here can get [visas] more easily. He does own a business in Ireland, too, which we shouldn’t forget.