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European Commission set to stay silent in debate over leaving or remaining in EU

By John Mulgrew

The European Commission in Northern Ireland will not be campaigning for the UK to remain as part of the EU, it is understood.

While the voice of the Brexit campaign has been nothing but vocal, the pro-EU camp - especially in Northern Ireland - has been largely muted. And it's understood the European Commission office in Belfast - one of four around the UK - will not be getting involved in the Europe debate.

There remain serious concerns over what would happen here, particularly with cross-border trade and EU funding of infrastructure, if the UK votes to leave.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's newest airline, Brussels Airlines - which will launch here at the end of the month just weeks before the key EU referendum - has said it expects a slowdown in the run-up to the vote, amid increasing "uncertainty".

Christian Schindler, Lufthansa's regional director for the UK, Ireland & Iceland, said he expects the majority of traffic coming here will be Belgian tourists visiting Northern Ireland.

"We think the majority of the traffic will be incoming, with a lot of growth on the tourism side.

"We want to bring tourists into Belfast. It will be more of a mix on the business and leisure side, going out of Northern Ireland."

Speaking about the potential impact a Brexit could have on business, and the number of people using the new link, he said: "The referendum is a very political question. The Lufthansa group is operating in non-EU countries and EU countries.

"As such, for us, both ways work, because there is always travel, people are always travelling.

"On the other hand, uncertainty with the referendum, or after the referendum, depending on what happens, can always have an impact on travel.

"And especially in the month of June, it will probably be difficult for us in the UK, given the referendum and the euro. There are various reasons why people might not travel."

It's introducing five flights a week, kicking off from March 27, direct from Belfast City Airport to Brussels. And Mr Schindler believes that the bulk of the tourism traffic will be coming from Belgium to Northern Ireland, bolstered by the draw of Game of Thrones, the Titanic and general sightseeing.

Prices start at £80 return, with around 1,000 seats a week linking Northern Ireland with Belgium. Brussels Airlines also flies to around 90 other locations, including 72 in Europe.

And it links Europe to 19 locations in Africa. Northern Ireland holidaymakers will be able to book flights to a range of destinations further afield - availing of a number of links serviced by other operators in the Lufthansa group.

Belfast City Airport's commercial director, Katy Best, said it had been "overwhelmed" by the level of support and response to the new Brussels route. And she said it was a "strategic fit" with the other links serviced by the airport.

Brussels Airlines carries around 7.5 million passengers each year, and has seen its volumes increase substantially over its 14 years in business.

Aside from its Europe and Africa network, it also flies direct from Brussels to New York, Washington and Toronto.

Meanwhile, a Government report has warned that Northern Ireland "would be confronted with difficult issues about the relationship" with the Republic, if the UK votes to leave the EU.

It said it could mean "it would be necessary to impose customs checks on the movement of goods across the border".

The Cabinet Office said: "Questions would also need to be answered about the 'common travel area' which covers the movement of people". It warned: "This could have an impact on cross-border cooperation and trade."

And it was revealed this week that Northern Ireland has received £170m from the EU towards business and infrastructure in just two years.

That includes everything from railway upgrades to business loans.

There are fears that the region could lose out on the huge cash injections, should the UK vote to leave.

Belfast Telegraph