Unique solution needed for Irish border after Brexit, says Brussels
THE Irish border issue cannot be used as a test case for wider UK-EU customs arrangements, it has been warned.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said he was worried by positions set out by the UK on the border.
Mr Barnier accused the UK of attempting to suspend EU law on the Irish border, including the customs union and the single market, in a kind of "test".
He said: "This will not happen."
"This would not be fair for Ireland and it would not be fair for the European Union," Mr Barnier said.
He was speaking yesterday after the EU published papers setting out its negotiating position on issues including the future of the border and customs arrangements.
In a four-page document, negotiators in Brussels called for flexible and imaginative solutions to avoid a hard Irish border in the wake of Brexit.
Mr Barnier's team said it was not offering solutions on how cross-border trade and travel would be protected. The document said the onus was on the UK to determine how to avoid a hard border, including checkpoints.
Mr Barnier also said the peace process should be preserved and common travel area between Ireland and the UK protected.
The paper said: "It is the responsibility of the United Kingdom to ensure that its approach to the challenges of the Irish border in the context of its withdrawal from the European Union takes into account and protects the very specific and interwoven political, economic, security, societal and agricultural context and frameworks on the island of Ireland."
The document warned that a thorough understanding of the issues beyond customs rules was needed to move negotiations forward. The paper called for the negotiations to secure a political commitment to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process.
"Flexible and imaginative solutions will be required to avoid a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure," the paper stated.
"This must be achieved in a way which ensures that Ireland's place within the internal market and Customs Union is unaffected."
The Republic's government said: "Our priorities remain protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, including by avoiding a hard border"
It called on the UK Government to make "substantive commitments and workable solutions" to the question of the Irish border.
"The principles reflected in this paper must underpin any arrangements and solutions to be proposed, developed and agreed in future negotiations."
A British government spokesman said it welcomed the commission's paper.
"In particular the commitment to avoid any physical infrastructure at the border is a very important step forward. As the UK's position paper set out, this is a crucial objective for the government given the importance of the Northern Ireland peace process," he said.
"We were clear on our position paper that the nature of the border means that an agreed, reciprocal solution must be found. Unilateral UK flexibility will not be sufficient to meet our shared objectives, which is why we welcome the commission's continued recognition of the need for flexible and imaginative solutions."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mr Barnier had outlined the principles "which point the path to the only sensible, credible and workable position for the island of Ireland".
"It speaks volumes that the European Union has recognised that the island of Ireland needs a solution to the Brexit problem whilst the British Government continues to ignore our needs."
Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson warned EU leaders that Northern Ireland's constitutional position would not be decided by Brussels or Dublin.
"Michel Barnier and his colleagues need to start listening and stop cherry-picking elements of the Belfast Agreement. The principle of consent underpins the agreement and I warn him, that if he is not careful, he runs the risk of destabilising relationships across these islands," he said.
"No one is in any doubt that as the only part of the United Kingdom to share a land border with the European Union, Northern Ireland faces specific challenges in terms of Brexit. It is welcome that all parties involved - the Government, the EU, Belfast and Dublin - do not want a hard border.
Sinn Féin TD and Brexit spokesman David Cullinane said the entire island of Ireland should remain with the EU.
"The paper recognises the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland and need for flexible and imaginative solutions to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and ensure there is no EU Frontier across Ireland. We must ensure that all of Ireland remains within the customs and single market and continued access to EU Courts," he said.
"In addition, the issues of rights of Irish and EU citizens are central. There can be no diminution of rights including those agreed as part of the Good Friday Agreement."
DUP MEP Diane Dodds said "the insistence that responsibility for ensuring an open and seamless border after Brexit lies with the UK is unhelpful".
"It would be foolish to view it as anything other than an effort to exert pressure on the UK negotiators as talks continue on wider aspects of the negotiations. It is wrong that border issues and the genuine concerns held by those living and working in affected communities can be exploited in this way," she said.
"If Brussels is really serious maintaining a seamless border it should be careful not wash its hands of decisions that must be taken or indeed from the close engagement and cooperation that will be required with the UK."
Alliance Brexit spokesman Stephen Farry said Northern Ireland could only work based on sharing and interdependence, "while Brexit entails new barriers and divisions".
"It is important to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and the free exchange of people, services and goods across these islands that underpins it," he said.