Northern Ireland news

Frictionless trade after Brexit will be impossible warns Michel Barnier

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, left, and Economy Minister Diane Dodds with Michel Barnier at Stormont. Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association
Rebecca Black, Press Association

Frictionless trade after Brexit will be impossible, the EU chief Brexit negotiator has said.

Michel Barnier made the comments to an audience at the Queen's University Belfast just days before the UK is set to leave the EU.

"The UK has chosen to become a third country; to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union; to leave behind the EU's framework of common rules, common supervision and common Court of Justice," Mr Barnier said.

"It has chosen to create two regulatory spaces. This makes frictionless trade impossible. It makes checks indispensable."

Speaking to politicians, including former taoiseach Bertie Ahern as well as business and community leaders, Mr Barnier confirmed checks will take place.

"We will need sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks on food products and live animals," he said.

"The EU must be able to assess risks on any product coming into its market and, if necessary, activate physical controls.

"These checks must take place somewhere.

"And as the whole point of the protocol is to avoid a hard border and protect the all-island economy, it was clear that they could not take place at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"The only real option was to use Northern Ireland's other entry points. This is also where such checks are the easiest to implement. And controls will also take place in Dublin and other EU entry points."

Earlier Mr Barnier had met with Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Economy Minister Diane Dodds at Stormont Castle.

While they posed for photographs before entering the building, there was no joint media appearance from Ms O'Neill and Ms Dodds after the meeting with Mr Barnier - indicative of the contrasting views on Brexit held by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Later, during a break in assembly proceedings in nearby Parliament Buildings, Ms O'Neill commented on the visit saying it was an "unprecedented time" in the region's political history.

"At the end of this week we are going to be dragged out of the EU against our wishes," she said.

Ms O'Neill said she emphasised to Mr Barnier the need to protect local businesses from disruption and costly administration post-Brexit.

She said Mr Barnier did not give any commitments that checks could be avoided during the half-hour meeting.

"He said this would be the first of many visits," she added.

Ms O'Neill said it was very important that Northern Ireland's voice was heard in the trade negotiations.

She acknowledged that she and First Minister Arlene Foster had very different positions on Brexit but stressed that there was commonality among the parties in regard to protecting the local economy.

The deputy first minister said Mr Barnier was right to point out the risk of a "cliff edge" come December 31, if a deal is not agreed.

"That's going to be catastrophic for trade patterns for the future – for many, many decades," she said.

"That's why we have the protocol (Ireland/NI protocol in Withdrawal Agreement)."

Ms O'Neill said there were only 11 months to negotiate the sort of trade deal that was usually conducted over a far longer time frame.

"I would be very concerned if it is do-able in the 11 months," she said.

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