LONDON – Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar believes the European Union has the upper hand in upcoming trade negotiations with Britain after Brexit, he said in an interview broadcast on Monday.
Varadkar argued the size of the EU, which will comprise 27 countries once Britain has left on Friday, means it holds more sway in talks with London over their future relationship.
The Irish leader, who is fighting a general election on February 8, also cast doubt on finalizing a free trade deal this year, as insisted on by his British counterpart Boris Johnson.
“We (the EU) have a population and a market of 450 million people. The UK, it’s about 60 (million),” Varadkar told BBC television.
“So if these were two teams up against each other playing football, who do you think has the stronger team?”
Varadkar, who played a pivotal part in the first phase of U.K.-EU divorce talks, met the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Dublin on Monday.
The Irish leader added in the interview that Brussels would not accept anything less than a comprehensive free trade agreement with Britain moving forward.
“When I hear people talk about piecemeal, it sounds a bit like cake and eat,” he said, referring to securing only a partial deal by the end of the year.
“That isn’t something that will fly in Europe.”
London indicated earlier this month it could seek a piecemeal post-Brexit deal with the EU that leaves some issues unresolved but still lets it break free from the bloc at the end of the year.
Britain leaves the EU at 2300 GMT on Friday, when it will begin an 11-month transition phase during which existing arrangements remain unchanged.
Johnson wants to agree the terms of the future relationship, modelled on the EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, by the end of that period.
Varadkar said it would be “difficult to do this” but that Brussels “won’t be dragging our feet.”