Good Friday progress must be preserved, says EU chief
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator has hinted he is against the return of a hard Border on the island of Ireland.
Michel Barnier, who was appointed the European Commission's Brexit pointman in October, said he wanted to "preserve the success" of the Good Friday Agreement after the UK leaves the EU, and was "aware" of the border sensitivities.
The UK's decision to leave the European Union would have major consequences, in particular for the European Union's external borders," he said in Brussels yesterday, in his first press conference since taking office.
"I am personally extremely aware of the importance of this subject and we will do our utmost, in our negotiations with the UK and with Ireland, to find a way to preserve the success of the Good Friday process and keep the dialogue going."
The Frenchman was in charge of EU funding for Northern Ireland when he was regional commissioner in the early 2000s, and visited Dublin in October, where the Taoiseach set out "Ireland's unique set of priorities" on Brexit, including the border.
Irish ministers and officials have been meeting regularly with their EU counterparts to make sure the message gets through.
Brussels has refused to enter into talks with the UK until it triggers divorce proceedings under Article 50 of the EU treaty.
British prime minister Theresa May intends to send formal notice by the end of March, which will set the clock ticking on two years of negotiations.
But Mr Barnier warned the UK it would have less than two years to ink a deal, as time would have to be set aside to ratify it.
"All in all, there will be less than 18 months to negotiate," Mr Barnier said.
He estimated a deal would need to be done by October 2018 to give the european and UK parliaments time to vote on it, and to clear the way for the European Parliament elections in May 2019.
There was little detail on what the deal would look like, with Mr Barnier saying only that he favoured an "orderly withdrawal" of the UK from the now 28-member bloc.
He refused to speculate on whether that meant a departure from the single market and customs union, otherwise known as a "hard" Brexit.
"I don't know what a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit is," Mr Barnier said. "I can only say what Brexit is."
But he had strong words for Brexiteers who wanted to have their cake and eat it, saying that single market access was bound up with the freedom to migrate.
"Being a member of the European Union comes with rights and benefits.
"Third countries can never have the same rights and benefits [as EU members], since they are not subject to the same obligations," Mr Barnier said.
"The single market and its four freedoms - four freedoms - are indivisible; cherrypicking is not an option."
The governor of the UK central bank has said there should be a transitional period after Brexit to allow companies time to extricate themselves from EU law and to ensure market stability.
But Mr Barnier said no talks on a transitional period would be possible until the UK outlined what kind of "new partnership" it wanted with the bloc in future - something the UK government was so far unwilling to reveal.
"We need to know the dimensions and the content of this future relationship in order to conceive of how to prepare it," Mr Barnier said.
His remarks represent a hardening of the EU's tone on Brexit.
Mr Barnier said the EU must "preserve the unity and the interests" of the bloc's remaining 27 countries.
"Solidarity is better than solitude," he said.
Mr Barnier stressed that there were many challenges to overcome in the years ahead in terms of the negotiations.
He also said there were legal complexities that needed to be considered which would make the process difficult.
"We are entering uncharted waters," he said.
"The work will be legally complex, politically sensitive and will have important consequences for our economies and, first, for our people - on both sides of the Channel."
Following a summit in Brussels next week, EU leaders will meet without the UK to set out how the Brexit process will be handled once Theresa May sends her formal letter.
They are the ones who will set the broad outlines of the deal, with the Commission doing the technical legwork.
"We are ready," Mr Barnier said. "Keep calm and negotiate."
Meanwhile, SDLP MP and member of the Westminster Brexit Committee Mark Durkan welcomed Mr Barnier's comments that preserving the success of the Good Friday Agreement was an important objective for the EU.
"I had extensive dealings with Michel Barnier, now the EU lead negotiator on Brexit," Mr Durkan said.
"He has always shown a genuine personal interest in the peace process.
"He demonstrated not just a sensitive understanding but also a keen appreciation of the contributions of the community and economic sectors in moving the peace process forward."