Michel Barnier: I'm committed to a Brexit deal that protects Belfast Agreement but respects UK constitution
EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier writes exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph on hopes for Irish border talks
I have very much enjoyed my time in Ireland and Northern Ireland over the past two days. Yesterday, I attended the fourth All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dundalk and I met - and learned a lot from - a whole range of people.
My first stop in Northern Ireland was to visit InterTradeIreland in Newry, a cross-border body set up by the Good Friday Agreement.
- Brexit 'backstop' vital to prevent return to hard border, warns Barnier
- Blow for Theresa May as peers inflict further defeat on her Brexit plans
- Barnier warns of risk of hard border return as he urges rapid movement on issue
- MP claims Varadkar broke protocol with NI visit
I got a good sense of the issues facing businesses from across Northern Ireland. Today, I am in the beautiful city of Derry-Londonderry, where I will again meet cross-border businesses.
I will be in Dungannon this afternoon.
From 1999-2004, I was the EU Commissioner for Regional Policy. Northern Ireland was very much part and parcel of my working life, as I oversaw how the PEACE funds were spent. On one of my visits at the time, I remember speaking to John Hume and David Trimble about the achievements of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, and both told me about how crucial the EU and the PEACE programme was in helping to foster peace in Northern Ireland.
This was long before the UK's decision to leave the EU, and the beginning of the subsequent negotiations, for which I find myself as the EU's chief negotiator.
My role here is not to mediate between different positions on Brexit, neither in London nor in Belfast, but to negotiate on behalf of the 27 member states and to look for practical solutions to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
While I still believe that remaining in the EU would have been the best course of action - as do the majority of the people of Northern Ireland - I respect the sovereign decision of the people of the UK as a whole. My job is to ensure that the entire UK leaves in an orderly fashion, rather than in a disorderly fashion.
After Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 on 29 March last year, the leaders of the 27 countries of the EU recognised the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland and declared that flexible and imaginative solutions will be required to avoid a hard border.
In this context, I am committed to finding such a solution that protects the Good Friday Agreement, north-south cooperation and the functioning of the all-island economy, while respecting the UK's constitutional order. We have no choice but to protect the achievements of the past 20 years. We have no choice but to try to find a solution. And find a solution we must.
In December, we agreed with the UK that if the question of the border cannot be solved through the future EU/UK relationship, or through specific solutions, the so-called "backstop" option would apply. I am more than aware of how sensitive this issue is and how this was received by some in the UK.
But allow me to clarify a few things. We are not asking Northern Ireland to remain within the EU. We are not asking Northern Ireland to become closer to Dublin and more distant from London. Rather, we are proposing technical, practical solutions to a complex challenge created by Brexit.
And we would be more than happy to examine any proposals that the UK Government makes, so long as they apply to the unique situation on Northern Ireland, and respect the fact that Ireland will remain a member of the European Union. Just as we respect Northern Ireland's constitutional status, the UK has to respect Ireland's place in the EU. Ireland will remain a member of the EU, the Customs Union and the Single Market. We will continue negotiating with the UK government on this issue, and all the other aspects of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. I would very much hope that we can make substantive progress in time for the June European Council. We can then continue the scoping of the framework for the future EU-UK relationship in parallel with wrapping up the final details of the withdrawal agreement.
An agreement that ensures an orderly withdrawal of the UK, including the backstop on Ireland and Northern Ireland, will pave the way for a broad and ambitious future partnership between the EU and the UK which is in the best interest of both sides, not least of all Northern Ireland.