Brexit

Britain must solve post-Brexit border problem, says Guy Verhofstadt

Sinn Féin's leader in the north Michelle O'Neill meets Guy Verhofstadt at Stormont. Photo: Sinn Féin/Twitter 
Deborah McAleese and David Young, Press Association

The onus on finding a workable solution to the Irish border problem post-Brexit remains firmly with the UK Government, a key European Parliament figure has insisted.

The parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt again suggested Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and single market post-Brexit could provide a resolution.

He said enabling the north to retain such status even if the rest of Britain leaves the customs union and single market might be the way to avoid a hardening of the border.

However, the Belgian MEP stressed it was for the British government to come up with the solution, insisting the ideas tabled by Whitehall to date were not acceptable.

Mr Verhofstadt is in Belfast at the start of a two-day fact-finding mission to the island of Ireland.

He told the Press Association a "unique solution" was needed to avoid a hard border.

"A unique solution in that there is no resurrection of a hard border in Northern Ireland because that is not in the interests of business in Northern Ireland and Ireland, neither in the interests of the citizens," he said.

"That is also the reason I am here - to hear from the political parties in Northern Ireland how they can find this solution even though we all know this unique solution has to be proposed by the UK side, because the problem is a consequence of the decision of the UK to leave the European Union."

After a meeting between Mr Verhofstadt and Sinn Féin politicians at Stormont, the party's northern leader Michelle O'Neill said they had found him to be very understanding.

She said: "He's very clear in dismissing the papers which the British government have produced to date and so I did find him a very understanding man and we need to take these opportunities to engage with him.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, deputy leader Nichola Mallon and MLA Claire Hanna meet Guy Verhofstadt at Stormont 

"I believe he's someone who has been very aware of the implications of Brexit on the island of Ireland and someone who has been very strong in setting out his position on issues which need to be resolved before moving on to the next stage of negotiations.

"We've made very clear to him today the issues which we need to see - we need to remain in the customs union, we need to have access to the single market, we need to see no return to hard borders and to see citizens have access to the European Courts of Justice."

Ms O'Neill added: "At least he's had the manners to come and talk to people about the implications which is far more than any British minister has done."

Mr Verhofstadt met representatives of all of the north's main parties at Stormont.

This afternoon he is travelling to border areas in Armagh and Monaghan to discuss the future of the areas following the Britain's withdrawal from the EU.

MEP Diane Dodds was part of the DUP delegation that met Mr Verhofstadt.

She insisted Northern Ireland could not be treated any differently to the rest of Britain.

"We would not countenance and indeed it would be calamitous for the economy in Northern Ireland if there were barriers to trade with our largest partner which is the rest of the United Kingdom," Mrs Dodds said afterwards.

Responding to Mr Verhofstadt's claim that the onus for drawing up a solution rested with the Britain, Mrs Dodds added: "A border has two sides and for the European Union to simply say this is a UK issue actually fails the people who live and will continue to be part of the European Union on the Irish Republic's side of that border.

"These talks will only be successful if the two sides are willing and able to talk through a sensible solution to Brexit.

"So therefore soundbites like this are not really and will not reflect the reality of the solution when it comes."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said there was an "economic and political tsunami" heading for Northern Ireland.

He said Mr Verhofstadt shared his party's position.

"He has the right position," said Mr Eastwood.

"He understands that we need to accommodate the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland, he understands that people in Northern Ireland voted to remain and that has to be respected.

"We are of one mind with him when he talks about the need for the north to remain within the customs union and the single market.

"It's great to have a voice at the very top of the European parliament making those noises."

UUP leader Robin Swann said the lack of powersharing executive at Stormont, due to an ongoing political stalemate between the DUP and Sinn Fein, was harming the region at a crucial time.

"It was shame and disgrace today that we were meeting as individual parties and there wasn't an executive presenting Northern Ireland in what is a crucial moment and crucial activity in how Northern Ireland progresses at this moment in time," he said.

He claimed the EU was "fixating" on the UK's exit bill at the expense of the real life impact Brexit might have on people in Northern Ireland.

Following the Alliance Party's meeting with Mr Verhofstadt, MLA and former justice minister David Ford said their discussions had included how the UK's withdrawal from the EU could impact on cross-border security issues.

Mr Ford said: "We had significant discussions on the potential dangers of the UK moving away from the EU arrangements, the need to remain full members of international bodies such as Europol and Eurojust to ensure that the UK plays a part in setting the regulations.

"Mr Verhofstadt was also interested in our take on the particular issues which affect Ireland and Northern Ireland in relation to things like the vital need to keep the European arrest warrant, which is currently in danger of being lost, and in order to ensure we can maximise on co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Siochana between the two customs services.

"Those are issues which are not of particular relevance to the UK as a whole but are of very distinct relevance in Northern Ireland."

The former Belgian prime minister will later travel to Dublin, where he will meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Thursday and also address a special joint sitting of a number of Irish parliamentary committees.

Mr Verhofstadt, who is the link man between the EU negotiating team and the European Parliament, voiced scepticism about Britain's position paper on the border post-Brexit, a document that suggested there would be no need for physical customs checks on the frontier even if the UK was outside the customs union.

"For the moment we don't see a workable solution being put forward by the UK Government," he said.

In an interview with RTE Radio One, he added: "There are possibilities, for example you could imagine one proposal on the table that Northern Ireland continued to be part of the customs union and even of the single market.

"The point is it is the UK Government that has to come forward with such unique solutions."

The MEP's visit comes ahead of next month's crucial summit in Brussels when leaders of the EU 27 will decide whether sufficient progress has been made in the first phase of negotiations to progress talks to focus on future trading relations.

The EU has insisted progress has to be made in three key areas: citizens' rights, the size of the UK's exit bill and the shape of the Irish border post-Brexit.

Asked about speculation Prime Minister Theresa May will outline a sum the UK is prepared to pay in a keynote speech on Friday, Mr Verhofstadt said: "Let's have the speech of Mrs May and then we can make an analysis."

He said there remained a "dispute" on the exit bill and that there were "big differences" in terms of both sides' position on citizens' rights.

The parliament's Brexit co-ordinator is starting his day in Belfast with a private tour of the city with academics from Queen's University who specialise in history and politics.

He will then travel to Parliament Buildings, Stormont, where he will be greeted by the speaker of the crisis-hit assembly Robin Newton before holding meetings with political leaders.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill will hold individual meetings with Mr Verhofstadt, as will UUP leader Robin Swann, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry.

After leaving Belfast, he will visit a farm that straddles the border.

Mr Verhofstadt will then meet campaigners opposed to a hard Brexit and representatives from the road hauliers industry.

He will hold talks with Mr Varadkar on Thursday morning before addressing a joint sitting of a number of Dail committees.

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