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Northern Ireland should be a priority in Brexit talks, say MEPs

Northern Ireland should be the priority in the forthcoming talks on the UK's departure from the European Union, MEPs have said.

MEPs in Strasbourg were debating the European Parliament's red lines for any withdrawal agreement in two years' time.

Leader of the EPP group of centre-right MEPs, Germany's Manfred Weber, told the Parliament that the UK could not simply pick and choose areas such as security, scientific collaboration and free trade where it wanted to co-operate with the remaining 27 member states.

He said that "the Northern Ireland question is a decisive one" saying it is important to "avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland".

Gianni Pitella, leader of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, said the EU had to defend the peace process in Northern Ireland.

But Phillippe Lamberts of the Green Party said the UK had chosen the most extreme interpretation of the referendum, and opted for a hard Brexit.

"How can you have a hard Brexit, without having a hard border in Ireland?" he asked.

During the debate Nigel Farage was heckled after accusing MEPs of "behaving like the mafia" over the conditions of Brexit. The former Ukip leader was told to retract his "unacceptable" remark by the Parliament's president, Italian Antonio Tajani, and said that, in respect of national sensitivities, he would instead brand them "gangsters".

The European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, told MEPs that he expected the UK to return to the EU in the future, when a younger generation recognises withdrawal as "a loss of time, a waste of energy and a stupidity".

The European Parliament effectively holds a veto on any Brexit deal as it must be approved by a majority of MEPs in a vote after having first received the assent of a qualified majority of national leaders in the European Council.

The debate came after Prime Minister Theresa May said curbs on freedom of movement would not come into force immediately after Britain has quit the European Union.

Speaking during a trip to Saudi Arabia, Mrs May said there would be an "implementation" phase once a deal had been struck, with business and governments needing a "period of time" to adjust to the new rules.

"In terms of the deal that we negotiate and the arrangements that will come there, what we have talked about, you've used the phrase 'transitional phase'; I have used the phrase 'implementation period'," Mrs May said.

"If you think about it, once we've got the deal, once we've agreed what the new relationship will be for the future, it will be necessary for there to be a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth, depending on the nature of the deal - but a period of time when that deal will be implemented."

Leaders of the main groupings in the European Parliament said they wanted "fair and constructive" talks with Britain during the two-year withdrawal talks under Article 50, but insisted that divorce talks must come before negotiations over future trade relations and that the UK will not be allowed to "cherry-pick" favoured elements of EU membership to keep.

The Italian socialist leader insisted the European Parliament would be ready to veto a Brexit deal if the conditions of its resolution were not respected.

Britain would not be allowed to become a "tax haven" off the shores of Europe, he said.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told the Parliament that the Brexit decision was "profoundly sad".

"The choice of the British people, however respectable that may be, does not fit into the march of history - not European history and not global history," said Mr Juncker.

Mr Juncker confirmed the Commission's position that the EU could not deal with its future relations with the UK until the terms of withdrawal were "fully resolved".

He made clear he will insist on the UK paying its "divorce bill", saying that "commitments that have already been entered into should definitely be respected".

He said that expatriate citizens must be given certainty about their futures, declaring: "People are not negotiating chips."

Mr Juncker warned: "No deal would be the worst case scenario ... No deal means no winners. Everybody will lose.That is why we will proceed with negotiations with the UK to try to reduce the damage caused to people, to trade and to societies."

The Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told MEPs: "No deal would have very serious consequences, first and foremost for the United Kingdom, but also for the European Union.

"The 'no deal' scenario is not the scenario we are looking for. We are looking for success - success not against the United Kingdom, but with the United Kingdom."

Mr Barnier promised the negotiations would not be conducted in secret but would be "transparent".

Restating the Commission's determination to secure a divorce payment from Britain, Mr Barnier said: "We do not seek to punish the United Kingdom, we are simply asking the United Kingdom to deliver on its commitments and undertakings as a member of the European Union."

Mr Barnier described Mrs May's demand for parallel negotiations on divorce and trade as "a very risky approach".

"To succeed, we need ... to devote the first phase of negotiations exclusively to reaching an agreement on the principles of the exit. We are not proposing this to be tactical or create difficulties for the UK.

"On the contrary, it is an essential condition to maximise our chances to reach an agreement together within two years - which is very short.

"It is also our best chance to build trust before proceeding to the second phase of negotiations devoted to scoping our future relations and discussing necessary transitory arrangements.

"The sooner we agree on the principles of an orderly withdrawal, the sooner we can prepare our future relations."

The leader of Conservative MEPs, Ashley Fox, said: "We all need a good agreement, not a good fight.

"I want members to see today as a beginning and not an end. It is the start of a new relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

"Although we will be leaving the EU. we want to forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies in Europe."

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