Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned the UK that the EU will have the upper hand in post-Brexit trade talks.

In a footballing analogy, he warned that the bloc has a “stronger team” because of its far larger population and market in comparison.

Mr Varadkar also suggested that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may run out of time to get a trade deal signed before the end of the year when the transition period finishes.

The Taoiseach, who is fighting a general election, spoke to the BBC ahead of meeting with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Dublin.

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“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,” Mr Varadkar said.

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

Mr Johnson has repeatedly ruled out requesting an extension to the transition period, during which the UK abides by EU rules, past December 31.

But Mr Varadkar, whose talks with the PM were seen as key in securing a breakthrough on the exit pact, questioned whether it would be possible to negotiate a full trade deal in time, saying “it will be difficult to do this”.

And he warned against any attempt by the UK to broker parts of a deal over time with the EU.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier arrived at Government Buildings in Dublin for a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar today. 

Asked about his comments that the EU would hold the upper hand in the talks, the Taoiseach said: “Ireland will be friends to the United Kingdom into the future, we want to be friends with our nearest neighbour.

“But there should be no doubt that we are on ‘Team EU’, we are part of the 27 and maintain solidarity with all the member states and European institutions that showed solidarity with us over the past two or three years.

“I think if you see this as a contest, the European Union is in a very strong position – we’re 27 countries, we have a population of 450 million people and the single market is the largest economy in the world.

Mr Varadkar said he was “ambitious” about the future EU/UK relationship but warned there was also a need for “realism”.

“We need to start a new relationship between the EU and the UK on a firm and honest footing,” he said.

“And that means a level playing field. This is very much in Ireland’s interests, as well as that of the European Union as a whole.”

The Taoiseach highlighted that the Withdrawal Agreement had ensured there was no hard border, free movement on the island of Ireland had been maintained and citizens’ rights protected.

He said achieving a trade deal by the end of 2020 would be “very challenging”.

“Time is short and a negotiating mandate will be agreed at the EU Council in March, but we’re up for it,” he said. “And we agree (himself and Mr Barnier) that it’s important as ever that we enter the next phase united and in a positive spirit, and we do.”

Mr Varadkar added that the second phase of Brexit will be different to the first.

“In the first phase, there were three very definite objectives. Protecting citizens rights, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, financial settlements and making sure that the specific issues to Ireland were looked after and that’s all been done,” Mr Varadkar added.

“This phase is different. There isn’t a separate objective related to Ireland. But I think our influence will remain strong, relationships have been built up over the past two or three years.

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“We will certainly work as a government to make sure that the other member states continue to understand the unique concerns that we have because of our history and geography and the fact that our economy is so intertwined with that of Great Britain.

“But we will also understand that other countries in the European Union too have unique interests, and the best way that we can get the best outcome for every EU member state is for us to pull together those interests, and make sure that they’re part of the negotiating mandate which will agree at the European Council meeting at the end of March.”

HeraldScotland:

Mr Barnier said the Withdrawal Agreement would not have been possible without the unified approach of people and politicians in Ireland. He singled out Mr Varadkar and his team for particular praise.

“So the moment has finally come – the UK leaving the EU on Friday,” he said.

“Thankfully, it is leaving with a deal. It was not easy to get here. Over the past three years we negotiated respectfully, openly and fairly with the UK to ensure that it leaves the EU, our union, in an orderly manner. To ensure that the rights of our citizens are protected and to ensure peace and stability on this island.

“We now have a withdrawal agreement that brings legal certainty. And I wanted to make one point about this today. It certainly wouldn’t have been possible to reach this agreement without the hard work, passions and unity of everybody here in Ireland.”

Thanking politicians in the Irish parliament and the civil servants, he added: “And I want to thank you, Leo, for the leadership, for the courage you have shown throughout this negotiation, in particular in the last few months at the end of last year.

“What Brexit really showed that for us in Europe it doesn’t matter whether you are big or small. We are all part of a family.”

Mr Varadkar said negotiations on the future relationship did not need to be a contest.

“But I don’t think we have to see it as a contest. There is a possibility for us to work together with the United Kingdom over the next few months and come to a future relationship and a trade agreement that’s mutually beneficial and that’s the spirit in which we will be entering these talks.”

Mr Barnier said he would present a draft negotiating mandate to the EU member states next Monday.

“Brexit is not going to go away,” he said.

“We have some important work ahead of us. The protocol of Ireland/Northern Ireland now needs to be implemented in all its dimensions – we will watch over its implementation very closely.

“We also need to begin negotiations on our future relationship – an ambitious relationship with the UK. It’s time for round two and time will be very short. We will maintain the EU unity, and we want to find an agreement that works in the interest of the whole EU.”