North may control goods from rest of UK post-Brexit, Barnier says
EU chief Brexit negotiator insists controls would not be border on island of Ireland
Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: a protocol sets out specific measures to prevent a hard border in the North. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet
Ports and airports in Northern Ireland could be forced to control goods coming across the Irish Sea from the rest of the UK in the wake of Brexit, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has warned.
However, he insisted these controls would not represent a border being created on the island of Ireland.
Mr Barnier was speaking in Brussels on the publication by the European Commission of its draft Brexit divorce treaty, the Withdrawal Agreement.
A protocol sets out specific measures to prevent a hard border in the North, proposing a continuing status for Northern Ireland akin to customs union membership, in an all-island “common regulatory area”.
The draft, which has not yet been approved by member states and will also need to be negotiated with the UK, gives legal effect to commitments made by the UK and EU in December’s joint report on the phase one Brexit discussions.
The proposals for preserving the current soft border and safeguarding the Belfast Agreement are based on the UK’s December fallback position in the event of no agreement on a future full-trade deal being reached with the EU.
Mr Barnier said he would continue to work to secure such an agreement but that it was necessary to include language in it based on the fallback as the alternatives were largely aspirational.
The draft text also includes commitments by the UK to copperfasten the many areas of North-South co-operation – it cites “environment, health, agriculture, transport, education and tourism, as well as energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, inland fisheries, justice and security, higher education and sport”.
The draft also includes obligations to safeguard the Common Travel Area and the protection of citizen’s rights.
Mr Barnier said nothing in the text should “be a surprise” given what was agreed in December between the EU and the UK. The draft text gives legal effect to the pre-Christmas deal on the issues of citizens’ rights post-Brexit, the financial settlement between the EU and UK, and issues specific to the island of Ireland.
The deal contained three ways in which a hard border between the North and the Republic could be avoided – through an overall EU-UK trade deal, bespoke technological arrangements proposed by the UK, or through the so-called “backstop” option which says there should be “full alignment” between North and South if there is no deal.
Mr Barnier said discussions on all three options could continue in parallel, and this was also reflected in the draft text published on Wednesday, which contained a protocol on the third option.
“Discussions on the other scenarios may continue to be pursued in parallel, but . . . this protocol is based on the third scenario of maintaining full alignment with those rules of the union’s internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Belfast] Agreement, and that it applies unless and until an alternative arrangement implementing another scenario is agreed,” it says.
The text adds: “A common regulatory area comprising the union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland is hereby established. The common regulatory area shall constitute an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South co-operation protected in accordance with this chapter.”
Mr Barnier said the union’s purpose was to ensure that “daily life around the Border should continue as before”.