Brexit on Brussels agenda for Belfast delegation - but not with Juncker

The delegation from Northern Ireland pictured at the European Commission building following their meeting in Brussels yesterday
Gary McDonald Business Editor, in Brussels

BUSINESS leaders from the north were in Brussels again yesterday trying to knock heads together as a crisis looms over a no deal Brexit.

A delegation from sectors including agri-food, manufacturing, retail, construction, pharmaceuticals, freight and services were invited by Task Force 50 to discuss their version of the backstop and to have a technical conversation about what it may mean for businesses who trade with the EU and internationally.

Ironically in the same Berlaymont building, and at the exact same time, Europe's biggest annual get-together of local, regional and national decision-makers and experts commenced - without a mention of Brexit.

And at the opening session of the EU Week of Regions and Cities - in which 600 speakers will address 6,000 delegates at 150 seminars/panel sessions across the city - European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker point-blankly refused to discuss the B-word.

Even when Karl Vanlouwe, a member of the Flemish Parliament, referred to the dire connotations Brexit will have on those regions across Europe with close economic ties to UK, and demanded compensation for port cities "for the negative economic and social effects it will bring", there was no response.

Juncker then left the opening session early, before more questions could be asked from the floor.

And when the Irish News tried to speak to him as he left the building, we were rebuffed by his officials.

One source close to the Brexit talks team described the negotiations as "in a very tight pipe, so tight that nothing escapes, and simply nobody is talking".

In another part of Brussels, Juncker's TF50 team spent more than two hours with the 12-strong Northern Ireland delegation.

Afterwards, spokesman Stephen Kelly from Manufacturing NI described the meeting as "a useful and highly constructive conversation in which we engaged solely in practicalities, not in politics".

He said: "TF50 were able to answer some of our questions, but we too left them with some homework of their own, because it was very much a two-way challenge, and we left with a much deeper understanding of what the offer is.

"Of course, we still await the UK's version of the backstop and will now engage with both Theresa May's government and our own political representatives on the backstop issue."

He added: "It is clear that no deal is bad for Northern Ireland businesses, consumers and future job creation.

"We need to see a deal in place and we urge the negotiators on both sides to use the limited time ahead to reach a deal that works not only for the EU and the UK, but critically for Northern Ireland and our unique circumstances."

Although he didn't mention Brexit directly in his address to the Week of Regions and Cities, he referred to the cohesion which holds Europe together

He said: "Europe is not just Strasbourg or Brussels. It's all of Europe. Nations within the union can and do still have their own identity. We don't want to replace nations. Nations and the EU can go hand in hand."

And at a briefing for 200 journalists earlier in the day, European Commissioner for Regional Policy Corina Cretu, in outlining the 2021-2027 cohesion policy programme, said it would fully involve local authorities and people "in all 28 member states" - despite the number set to be cut to 27 from next March.

Officials for the Romanian politician put it down to "perhaps something being lost in translation", despite her address being delivered in English.

The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) is a body of 350 members representing local and regional authorities from the 28 member states, who meet in plenary in Brussels six times a year to discuss political priorities and adopt opinions on EU legislation.

Northern Ireland's two representatives on the CoR are Trevor Cummings, a unionist member of Ards & North Down Council, and Arnold Hatch, an alderman on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

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