By JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — Brexit is the challenge of a generation, and “unique solutions” will be needed to prevent it doing major damage, Ireland’s prime minister said Friday.
Leo Varadkar said a so-called “hard Brexit,” in which Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union, would mean “barriers to commerce and trade” between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
Britain voted last year to quit the 28-nation bloc and is due to formally leave the EU in March 2019.
The decision has huge implications for Ireland, the only EU country to share a land border with the U.K. At present the border is all but invisible, with goods and people moving freely back and forth.
Speaking in Belfast, Varadkar said there will have to be “unique solutions if we are to preserve all that we’ve gained” since the Northern Ireland peace process was cemented two decades ago and border barriers were dismantled.
The 38-year-old politician, who became Ireland’s youngest-ever leader in June, said he did not want to see a return to a hard border.
He said the onus was on supporters of Brexit “to come up with proposals for such a border” and persuade people it was a good idea.
“They’ve already had 14 months to do so,” he said. “If they cannot — and I believe they cannot — we can then talk meaningfully about solutions that might work for all of us.
“At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between north and south we need to build more bridges and fewer borders,” Varadkar said.
Divorce talks between Britain and the bloc are underway, but EU officials say progress must be made on resolving issues around the Irish border, the size of Britain’s exit bill and the status of EU nationals in the U.K. before the two sides can start hammering out their future economic relationship.
Varadkar said he hopes EU leaders will see enough progress by a summit in October, “but I do not underestimate for a second the enormity of the challenges that we face.”