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Varadkar: EU will have stronger team in trade talks with UK

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has suggested the EU will be the "stronger team" in post-Brexit trade talks with the UK.

Comparing negotiations to a football match, he suggested the EU would be at an advantage due to its larger population and market.

The taoiseach also warned reaching agreement would become harder if the UK sought to diverge from EU rules.

Mr Varadkar held talks with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Barnier told reporters the two sides faced “the risk of a cliff edge” if trade terms were not agreed by the end of the year.

He cautioned that a “very short time” remained to “rebuild” the UK-EU relationship before the post-Brexit transition period was due to end in December.

It has been confirmed that from the UK side, talks will be led by a 40-person “task force” headed by the PM’s Europe adviser David Frost.

Comparing negotiations to a football match, he suggested the EU would be at an advantage due to its larger population and market.

The taoiseach also warned reaching agreement would become harder if the UK sought to diverge from EU rules.

Mr Varadkar held talks with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Barnier told reporters the two sides faced “the risk of a cliff edge” if trade terms were not agreed by the end of the year.

He cautioned that a “very short time” remained to “rebuild” the UK-EU relationship before the post-Brexit transition period was due to end in December.

It has been confirmed that from the UK side, talks will be led by a 40-person “task force” headed by the PM’s Europe adviser David Frost.

In an interview earlier with BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Mr Varadkar said striking a deal in this timeframe was possible but would be “difficult”.

He said it was likely the scope of the eventual agreement meant it would have to be approved by national parliaments in each EU country.

“That’s where it gets messy. That’s where one country can hold things up, or two countries can,” he said.

He pledged the EU would not be “dragging its feet,” but added: “My assessment is that it is more likely that we will need an extension in order to finalise a free trade agreement and future economic partnership than not need it.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted he is not open to any extension.

Mr Varadkar, the leader of the Fine Gael party, is fighting his first election campaign as taoiseach. Ireland heads to the polls on 8 February.

The taoiseach told the BBC: “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.

“The UK, it’s about 60[m]. So if these were two teams up against each other playing football, who do you think has the stronger team?”

He also cautioned the UK against trying to negotiate individual deals covering different sectors of the economy.

“The final deal, the new relationship will have to be comprehensive,” he said.

“When I hear people talk about piecemeal, it sounds a bit like cake and eat,” he said, adding: “That isn’t something that will fly in Europe.”

“You may have to make concessions in areas like fishing in order to get concessions from us in areas like financial services.”

‘Genuine concern’
Mr Varadkar said there was “genuine concern” across Europe that the UK would seek to “undercut” EU standards after Brexit.

“When I meet Prime Minister Johnson he says, no, absolutely not – that’s not the kind of United Kingdom that I want to lead as prime minister.”

But he added: “We want that written down in law, we want that in a treaty.”

The EU has said it needs such guarantees because of the “geographic proximity and economic interdependence” of its economy to that of the UK.

Mr Varadkar said both sides would have to agree a “common set of minimum standards” for an agreement to be possible.

This is likely to be a contentious area of talks, with British ministers having insisted the UK should have the right to move away from EU regulations.

Another potential flashpoint could be access to fishing waters, which both sides have pledged to sort out before the end of June.

Leaked slides from an EU presentation last Friday said the bloc would be aiming for the same level of access to British fishing stocks it has now, and would not sign a wider trade deal until fishing access has been agreed.

But the UK government insists it will “take back control” of its waters.

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