Thursday 17 January 2019

There will be no deal unless Ireland is satisfied

The UK caused the problem in Ireland and the UK must solve it, writes EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

STICKING POINT: Demonstrators dressed as custom officials at a mock customs checkpoint at the Border during a protest staged last year
STICKING POINT: Demonstrators dressed as custom officials at a mock customs checkpoint at the Border during a protest staged last year

Michel Barnier

I am very much looking forward to spending the next two days in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is an opportunity for me to take stock with the Irish Government on the Brexit negotiations and meet those directly affected by the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union.

I negotiate on behalf of the 27 countries of the EU - and that means that I defend Ireland's interests. From very early on, it was clear to all in the EU that Ireland was in a unique situation and that a lot of imagination and creativity would be needed in order to mitigate the impact of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union.

In this respect, part of Ireland's strength in these negotiations comes from being part of a wider family of EU countries. No matter how big or small a country is in the EU, we stand by each other through thick and thin.

The UK's sovereign decision to leave the EU, and the UK government's decision to leave the single market and the customs union, creates unique problems for the border with Northern Ireland.

Following the UK's withdrawal (and subject to any transitional measures), part of the island of Ireland will be inside the EU's single market - and will continue benefiting from the advantages that go with it - while another part of the island will be outside the single market.

This will inevitably create challenges for both jurisdictions on the island, as well as for trade between Ireland and the UK, and Ireland and the rest of the EU.

But no matter how challenging this will be over the coming months, I want to underline that the EU is fully committed to having a safety net in our agreement - the so-called "backstop" option - in case the overall future relationship between the EU and the UK does not in itself solve the border issue.

This "backstop" solution will be there to prevent the return of a border on the island of Ireland, and to protect north-south cooperation and the Good Friday Agreement, whatever the future relationship between the EU and the UK holds in store.

In case there is any doubt whatsoever about our commitment to this, let me be crystal clear: we will not conclude the Withdrawal Agreement with the UK unless we have such a solution included in the text of the agreement. We will not sign any agreement with the UK unless we - together with the Irish Government - are satisfied with the solution found for Ireland.

So, where do things stand right now in the negotiations? We have a few more months ahead of us to wrap up the terms of the UK's withdrawal and agree on the framework of the future relationship.

We can use this time to continue looking for a solution for the Irish border, as part of that new relationship. The UK has chosen to leave the single market and the customs union.

It wants full regulatory autonomy and an independent trade policy, but at the same time it does not want a border on the island of Ireland. The time has now come to resolve the contradictions. Brexit created a specific problem in Ireland, so it is the UK's responsibility to also come forward with workable solutions.

The "backstop" solution needs to be negotiated now. The UK agreed in December that there should be such a solution, and Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated her commitment to this in March. And while we have agreed in principle, we have yet to agree in detail.

The EU side has put a solution on the table, which would entail Northern Ireland being aligned to those rules of the single market and customs union which support north-south cooperation, the all-island economy and protect the Good Friday Agreement.

This option would apply unless and until another solution is found. This is the "safety net" I mentioned earlier.

It is a straightforward, pragmatic solution, aimed at solving a difficult question. If the UK has a different idea, I am happy to look at it, but so far we have not received any workable solutions.

Over the coming weeks, we will continue our discussions with the UK. We will quite clearly need to have made substantial progress by the June European Council.

Time is of the essence. And the UK must use that time to engage with the EU on the issues that are identified in our "backstop" solution.

Tomorrow, I will be in Dundalk, where I will speak at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit - an excellent example of people on the island of Ireland working together to face the common challenges posed by Brexit. I will also visit Northern Ireland, to which I am very much looking forward.

Michel Barnier is the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator

Sunday Independent

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