EU will consider ‘any solution’ on Brexit to maintain Belfast Agreement - Barnier

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator said the so-called ‘backstop’ was only ‘one solution’, and there could be others

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier arrives to meet business stakeholders and cross-border groups at the Guildhall in Derry. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier arrives to meet business stakeholders and cross-border groups at the Guildhall in Derry. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Freya McClements

The EU will consider “any solution” on Brexit which would allow it to maintain the integrity of the Belfast Agreement, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said during a visit to Derry.

Speaking to reporters ahead of a meeting ahead of local business representatives, Mr Barnier said the EU was “open to any solution which would be able to maintain the Belfast Agreement in all its dimensions”.

He said the UK prime minister, Theresa May, had already accepted through agreements in December and March the need to protect the all-island economy and the North’s peace process.

“It is a line that we have to follow together now, because we agree on a political framework at this point,” said Mr Barnier.

“Now we have to find together the operational and practical solution.”

Mr Barnier said the so-called “backstop” – which would ensure Northern Ireland remains in the single market and the customs union if a deal is not reached before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 – was only “one solution”, and there could be others.

“We have proposed one solution, the backstop, in our protocol; there could be another backstop.

“We have to discuss with the UK government,” he said.

The senior EU Commission official is in Derry on the second day of a visit to the Border. On Monday he spoke in Dundalk alongside the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, at the All-Ireland Civic Forum on Brexit before travelling to Newry to meet business leaders from both sides of the Border.

Mr Barnier said it had been “very useful and very interesting” to meet them.

“All these people are concerned in an operational way to maintain the trade and connectivity between both sides and to maintain exactly what the Belfast Agreement means, and I am of exactly the same mind,” he said.

But he refused to comment on the British government’s defeat on Brexit in the House of Lords, which voted on Tuesday to give MPs the power to stop the UK from leaving the EU without a Brexit deal.

“I respect the British parliament as we ask to be respected, but I don’t want to intervene in the national process of the ratification of the deal,” he said.

Asked if he could guarantee that the EU would not instruct the Irish government to erect infrastructure on its side of the Border, he said he would not discuss the option.

“My line is to work for an orderly withdrawal for the UK including an operational solution for Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he said.

Speaking in Derry’s Guildhall, Mr Barnier said he was delighted to be in the “historic and vibrant” city and that he had enjoyed a walk on the EU-funded Peace Bridge.

Outside the Guildhall, a banner erected on the city’s 17th city walls read “Derry Voted Remain”.

Mr Barnier said he envisaged that people in Border areas may be able to retain access to EU peace funding.

“This week the European Commission will propose the new framework for the future financial prospects from 2021 to 2026-27, and we are ready to maintain the peace programme.

“The UK has decided to leave the European policies,” he said, “but we can maintain this co-operation thanks to the Interreg programme and in my view thanks to the peace programme.

“We have to maintain the peace programme for the future in the UK.”

Following his meeting with businesspeople in Derry, Mr Barnier will travel to Dungannon, Co Tyrone, where he will speak to representatives from the rural community.