Wednesday 21 March 2018

Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt 'shocked' by what he saw in Belfast

“I can tell you it was a shock to go to Belfast"

The European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt in Belfast at the start of a two day fact-finding mission
The European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt in Belfast at the start of a two day fact-finding mission

Shona Murray

Lead Brexit negotiation Guy Verhofstadt who visited the island of Ireland last week and addressed a special Oireachtas committee said he was “shocked” by what he saw when he visited Belfast.

“I can tell you it was a shock to go to Belfast, because the reality is that the problems are not over” he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg today.

“There is peace due to the Good Friday Agreement, but there are still these tensions”, there are fences “twelve metres high in the twenty-first century”.

“The worst thing that can happen is to lose the peace that Europe brought”, he said of the unresolved issue of what will happen to the Irish border once the UK leaves the EU.

“I stood next to memorial monument where you see pictures of young people 15, or 16 years old that died in a conflict based on nationalism, based on extremism”. Ensuring violence doesn’t return to Northern Ireland has to be an “absolute priority” for our house, he said.

Meanwhile several MEP’s rounded on the British government and pointed to the internal strife within the Tory Party as the reason for the lack of progress on Brexit talks so far.

German MEP Manfred Waber called on UK Prime Minister Theresa May to “please sack” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson during a debate on Brexit at the European Parliament.

MEP’s were debating a motion in the European Parliament in Strasbourg which calls on EU heads of state to decide that “sufficient progress has not been made” on three key aims of early Brexit talks, unless the next round of talks on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU delivers a major breakthrough.

The motion, “Brexit: lack of sufficient progress on divorce terms” was carried as the October deadline for ballpark agreement on three priority areas looms large. The three areas are in rights of EU citizens’ in the UK after Brexit, the UK’s financial obligations and the Irish/Northern Irish border.  The EU says until “sufficient progress” is made on agreement in these areas, talks on a trade deal can’t commence.

“Who shall I call in London that speaks for the British government”, Mr Weber said was the “top question” at the moment. “Is it Theresa May, Boris Johnson or David Davis, the UK’s Brexit Secretary? Such lack of cohesion “shows the British government is trapped by their own party quarrels and political contradictions”, he said.

Mr Verhofstadt said he regretted the tenor of the motion and would prefer if it was one declaring that phase two of the talks could begin. But, he said, the “disunity” among the British government is one of the reasons for the lack of progress. There is opposition between “Hammond and Fox”, Mr Verhofstadt said, referring to Tory in-fighting between British chancellor Philip Hammond and Trade Secretary Liam Fox. “There are divisions between Johnson and May”, he told the chamber. “It’s difficult to make the steps towards the second phase of the negotiations.”

“I deplore in fact that we are not able to put before you another resolution than the resolution of today”, he told the parliament of the motion that points to all of the areas that remain outstanding after four rounds of negotiations between EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier and David Davis.

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