30 Apr 2018


Brexit, Brussels, Brussels Daily

Speech by Michel Barnier at the All-Island Civic Dialogue

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me first thank you, dear Leo, dear Simon, for inviting me to speak at this 4th All-Island Civic Dialogue. It is a privilege and honour to be here and a pleasure to be in Dundalk.

I am not here in front of you as a technocrat from Brussels. I was elected from the region of Savoy, France. I will never forget what I learnt during that time from small businesses, farmers, the people on the ground. I have always worked with those people to make progress.

The paradox is that Brexit is not about progress and it’s not a project. There is no added-value with Brexit. Nobody has proved it so far that Brexit has added-value. But we have to respect it, as the decision was taken in a democratic vote.

I am in Dundalk this morning, in Newry this afternoon, and in Derry-Londonderry and Dungannontomorrow. I have come to listen and learn from people from across this island – North, South, East and West, urban and rural, Nationalist and Unionist, Leaver and Remainer. All the people are open to speak to me. I respect all opinions. I respect all opinions. I want to speak with those who work as part of the all-island economy. And to those for whom the border means today nothing more than a change from miles per hour to kilometres per hour.

Over the next two days, I will meet businesses that trade on a cross-border basis, thanks to the open border.

I want to explain – rationally and calmly – the EUproposals so far.

I want to explain how we propose maintaining these cross-border exchanges on the island of Ireland after Brexit, given the UK’s decision to leave the EU, to leave the Single Market and to leave the Customs Union. The UK’s decision.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In 1999, when I became the EU Commissioner for regional policy – in charge of the PEACE programme – the Good Friday Agreement had just been signed.

Some check-points and controls were still visible on the border, waiting to be fully dismantled.

Some check-points and controls were still visible on the border, waiting to be fully dismantled.

In May last year, when I returned to the border region at Lough Egish, County Monaghan, there was no physical border to be seen.

But, over the last 20 years, the Good Friday Agreement has meant – of course – far more than just removing customs and physical barriers. It removed borders on maps but also in minds.

The Good Friday Agreement created wide-ranging cooperation between North and South, and between communities: from energy and food safety, education and research – for instance here in Dundalk Institute of Technology – to human rights, or the cooperation between young people –as your programme today shows.

All of this was made possible thanks to the open border. All of this should be protected and cherished. So, there is no way back. There is no alternative but to protect this progress. The consequences of Brexit should not and must not lead to the return of a hard border, neither on maps nor in minds.

That is why the EU made Ireland one of the three key priorities, with the citizens’ rights and the financial settlement, right from the start of the negotiations.

And this is why we insist on the need to have a backstop as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.

In December, the UK agreed that, unless and until another solution is found, Northern Ireland will maintain full alignment with the rules of the Single Market and the Customs Union which support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I know that this backstop was the subject of heated discussions in the UK. I understand that.

So, today I would like to make just three points to avoid any misunderstandings.

1) First, both sides in this negotiation are firmly committed to a backstop. It is a guarantee to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In March, in a letter to the European Council President Donald Tusk, Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed her commitment to including operational legal text on the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.

To be clear: without a backstop, there can be no Withdrawal Agreement. This is an EU issue, not only an Irish issue.

I can assure you that Ireland has the full support of all Member States and all EU institutions: the European Parliament, the Council, and the European Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker and of all Commissioners, not least Phil Hogan.

Solidarity is an essential feature of these negotiations.As is the unity of the 27. And the Taoiseach underlined this eloquently in Leuven last week.

Defence of any Member States’ vital interests is one of the EU’s raisons d’être.

2) My second point is that the backstop is not part of a negotiation strategy. We are not playing tactics with Ireland’s vital interest.

I sometimes hear that, by insisting on a backstop, the EU is taking hostage the future relationship negotiations.

I even read that the EU is trying to get the UK to change its red lines – and stay in the Single Market and/or a customs union. Or even to reverse Brexit.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is wrong. The backstop is not there to changethe UK’s red lines. It is there because of the UK’s red lines.

The UK’s decision to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union creates a risk that the hard border will return. This is why it is necessary to have a self-standing backstop solution. To be clear, once again the backstop was drafted in full respect of the UK’s red lines.

Ladies and gentlemen,

3) My third point is that the backstop is needed in order to respect the integrity of the Single Market and the EU’s Customs Union.

Some people think that we could have two different sets of rules on the island of Ireland and still avoid border checks.

But Ireland is a member of the EU – and a proudmember, I add. It is an active player, active, very active player, in the Single Market.

Goods that enter Ireland also enter the Single Market. It is called the “Single” Market for a reason.

So, since we all agree that we do not want a border, and since the UK agreed to respect Ireland’s place in the Single Market, then that means goods entering Northern Ireland must comply with the rules of the Single Market and the Union Customs Code.

That is our logic. Simple as that.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The EU does not want to have a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

And we have no intention of questioning the UK’s constitutional order. That is none of our business.

We are seeking practical, practical and operational,solutions to a complex problem. No more, no less.

  • Our backstop solution only concerns goods – not people. People will continue to move freely between Ireland and the UK. And obviously between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We agreed to protect the Common Travel Area. That was important progress.
    • And regulatory alignment with the Single Market would be strictly limited to what is needed to avoid a hard border, notably for goods.
  • We know that there are already special rules and checks, I know that, in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK. There are all-island phytosanitary and veterinary rules, or rules where food safety and consumer protection is at stake. And everybody is fine with that because in all these cases, it would make no sense to have two separate sets of rules on the same island. Practical and operational solutions.

Finally, the backstop will apply unless and until another solution is found as part of the future relationship.

We are ready to look constructively at all options which allow us to meet our objectives – all options.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is the EU’s position, which is built in close cooperation with the Irish government and all Irish political leaders. And this is what I underlined, on the same terms, in my recent meetings with the leaders of Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party. And I look forward to confirm this position to the SDLP and the Alliance, and of course also to business representatives and civil society.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need substantive progress on the backstop before the June European Council.

I am confident that together, with the unity of the 27 and a constructive attitude on both sides, we will be able to agree on the right solution for avoiding a hard border and maintaining North-South cooperation in all its diversity. In all its creativity.

Let me conclude: agreement on the orderly withdrawal, including the backstop for Ireland, will pave the way for constructive negotiations for a broad partnership for the future – not only on economics and trade, but also on a lot of areas of thematic cooperation – I am thinking of aviation, Erasmus + for the young, on internal and external security, defence and foreign policy.

Together as the EU, together with the UK, we will move forward.

I want to thank finally for your attention and for your trust.


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