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Irish PM says EU, Britain not that far away on trade

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) – The European Union and Britain are further apart in rhetoric than substance as they begin future trade talks, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said ahead of Britain’s departure from the bloc on Friday.

The United Kingdom leaves the European Union on Friday for an uncertain Brexit future, the most significant change to its place in the world since the loss of empire and a blow to 70 years of efforts to forge European unity.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to wrap up a trade deal by a year-end deadline and while EU members are skeptical, Varadkar said it was possible to do so, particularly if the new deal is very similar to the current arrangements.

“I am confident we can get a good deal.  The good news is that I don’t think the two parties – the EU on one side and Britain on the other – are all that far apart. Further apart in rhetoric than substance,” Varadkar said in a speech.

“We broadly agree that we want there to be no quotas, no tariffs, no taxes and the minimum amount of bureaucracy and checks as possible. And that’s really important particularly in Ireland.”

Varadkar said both sides needed to start a new relationship on a firm and honest footing and for him, that meant a level playing field on standards.

He said that did not need to be absolute but that Ireland envisaged a common set of minimum standards that continue to be raised. While Varadkar said a deal may resemble the accord struck between the EU and Canada, “the UK is not Canada” and the risk of a neighbor undercutting the bloc on standards was different.

He added that Johnson had told him in a meeting this month that it was “absolutely not” the case that Britain would seek to undercut the EU in terms of state aids, environmental, labor, food and product standards.

Varadkar, who is behind in opinion polls at home as he seeks re-election next week, reiterated that Ireland would always welcome its nearest neighbor back into the bloc.

“We hope it works out for them. But if it does not, there will always be a seat kept for them at the table,” he said.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Jon Boyle and Hugh Lawson)