The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has offered Ireland the full support of “a united EU” as it seeks to avoid a worst case scenario from the UK’s imminent departure from the bloc.
Addressing a joint session of the two houses of the Irish parliament, Michel Barnier said a border that divides the island, and Ireland’s economic and historical ties with the UK would be taken into account in the Brexit negotiations, which he will lead when they get under way later this year.
“Today, in front of these two houses, I want to reassure the Irish people: in this negotiation, Ireland’s interest will be the Union’s interest,” Mr Barnier told MPs and senators. “We are in this negotiation together, and a united EU will be here for you.”
Mr Barnier has become the focus of Ireland’s hopes that a Brexit deal can be achieved that will not result in a hard border with Northern Ireland, will not disrupt the Good Friday peace agreement, will protect the almost century-old common travel and work arrangements between Ireland and Britain, and will result in minimal disruption to bilateral trade, which runs to €1.2bn a week.
But he also sought to dampen expectations that there would be no material change to the status and nature of the Irish border, which has mostly disappeared for practical purposes over the past 20 years.
“We have a duty to speak the truth – the UK’s departure from the EU will have consequences,” he said. “Customs controls are part of EU border management. They protect the single market. They protect our food safety and our standards.”
Earlier, Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, warned that Brexit and the prospect that it could change the nature of the border would undermine the fragile peace and power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland. “We cannot have a border like we had before,” the Taoiseach told a meeting of the European People’s party, the centre-right grouping in the European parliament that includes Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party.
Delegates from the EPP are meeting in Wicklow, south of Dublin, and Mr Barnier is expected to address their session on Friday after being given a tour of the border by Charlie Flanagan, the Irish foreign minister.