France backs special status for Ireland over Brexit

French finance minister supports EU negotiation team giving Border issue priority status

France’s minister for the economy, finance and industry Michel Sapin (left), with Michael Noonan, said it supported the Border issue being given priority status. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

France’s minister for the economy, finance and industry Michel Sapin (left), with Michael Noonan, said it supported the Border issue being given priority status. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


France supports Ireland’s special status in relation to Brexit being included in the draft plan of EU priorities for its exit negotiations with the UK, which European Council president Donald Tusk has promised to publish within 48 hours of Theresa May triggering article 50 on Wednesday.

Speaking in Dublin on Monday, Michel Sapin, France’s minister for the economy, finance and industry, said his country was supportive of Ireland’s issues in relation to our Border with Northern Ireland being given priority status by the EU negotiating team.

“It is France’s wish to have the specific situation of Ireland mentioned [in Mr Tusk’s draft plan],” Mr Sapin said.

He was speaking following a meeting with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan at which they discussed their respective priorities for the Brexit negotiations. Mr Noonan said he was “confident” that there would be a specific reference to the importance of dealing with the Border question in Mr Tusk’s text.

He noted that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator for the Brexit talks, had already indicated that the matter of borders would be one of the three or four primary issues to be discussed with the UK, adding that this “should be taken as code” for our position with Northern Ireland.

Customs checks

Separately, Mr Sapin said it should be “perfectly feasible” for Irish goods transiting through the UK en route to France to avoid customs checks on entering and leaving Britain ports if they have a special seal on their vehicles and documents to prove that there have been no changes in their cargo since being loaded here.

“There are no reasons not to do so within Brexit,” he said, noting that similar examples of this already exist in other parts of Europe. “This is going to be part of the discussions at a European level and at a bilateral level.”

Mr Noonan cited the movement of goods from Italy to other parts of the EU via Switzerland as an existing example of such an arrangement.

“One of our approaches to the negotiations is to identify parts of the European legal system where exceptions already apply which we could use as precedent,” he said. “That’s one we’ll be exploring.”

Mr Sapin said France’s aim was to keep any tariffs or customs rates that might apply on goods post Brexit “as low as possible”.

Outstanding liabilities

He declined to put a figure on how much the UK might have to pay on exiting the EU. It has been reported that the EU would seek between €40 billion and €60 billion from the UK to settle its share of outstanding pensions liabilities, loan guarantees and various other costs.

In the UK, it has been suggested that the sum would be about £5 billion (€5.7 billion) but Mr Sapin said it would be “far from that figure”.

“It will not be a negotiation that is like haggling between carpet merchants,” he added. “Once the principles have been defined, then the figures will come.”

Mr Sapin was also asked about the consequences for the Brexit talks and the European project as a whole if the French far right candidate Marine Le Pen were to win the country’s upcoming presidential election.

He said the election of Ms Le Pen would be “serious” for the image of France and its principles as a republic.

But the minister dismissed the possibility of her being elected, arguing that the French people “will put aside Marine Le Pen” in the second round of voting. “The result will be very clear. Madame Le Pen will be pushed back to the level that she should never have reached in terms of ambition and pretensions.”