Latest: Michel Barnier warns of risk of hard border return as he urges rapid movement on issue

Update 6.30pm: Michel Barnier has warned of the risk of a hard border returning in Ireland.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator urged rapid movement on the vexed issue ahead of this June's meeting of the bloc's leaders.

He also said there could be no withdrawal deal without a "backstop" option, meaning if no better solution is found Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules relating to the all-Ireland economy and North-South co-operation.

Mr Barnier said: "The backstop is not there to change the 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."

Many operational details have yet to be resolved surrounding the UK's only land border with an EU state after Brexit and the issue is top of the agenda in Brussels.

Michel Barnier in Newry. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mr Barnier visited the Irish border town of Dundalk on Monday.

He said: "We need to agree rapidly by June on the scope of all-island customs and regulations, the safety and controls that we need to respect the single market."

This summer's meeting of European leaders in Brussels would be a "stepping stone" for the final summit in October, which is the deadline for reaching an agreement on withdrawal, he added.

"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 proud member, 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."

A joint report on the UK's withdrawal agreed in December by Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker included both British proposals, along with the third "backstop" option which would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union.

But a version published by the EU in February and agreed by the EU27 in March contained only the "backstop", effectively drawing a customs border down the Irish Sea, which a furious Theresa May said "no British prime minister could ever agree".

This week marks Mr Barnier's third visit to Ireland and Simon Coveney said he was a friend of the country.

Earlier: Leo Varadkar accused of 'poor manners' over Northern Ireland visit

Update 5.20pm: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been accused of "poor manners" by a DUP MP for failing to follow protocol ahead of a visit to Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar headed north with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier who was accused by DUP party leader Arlene Foster of not understanding unionist culture.

Mr Varadkar and Michel Barnier had earlier met in Dundalk on Monday morning at a conference focused on Brexit.

The two largest parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin and the DUP, are on opposing sides over the EU divorce.

An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar,Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney and Michel Barnier, European Commission Task Force Chief Negotiator..

Sinn Féin has called for a new referendum on Irish unity within five years amid nationalist hopes the exit could inspire greater support for a united Ireland.

Following his appearance at the conference, Mr Varadkar travelled to Northern Ireland, in a move described by the DUP as "outside of normal protocol".

MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "Leo Varadkar's visit is another demonstration of the poor manners and disrespect which appears to be the Irish Government's Brexit strategy.

"Having told unionists just over a month ago that he recognised statements and actions by the Irish government were unhelpful or intrusive, he follows this up with a visit which no local representative is informed about and none of the other normal protocol is followed.

It is increasingly apparent that the Irish government does not seem to care about securing a sensible and pragmatic outcome from Brexit which can work for both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

"Their preferred approach is to use Brexit in whatever way possible to undermine Northern Ireland and particularly its constitutional position."

But Mr Varadkar said he has "no hidden agenda", adding that he was resolutely committed to protecting the peace process across Ireland.

He said: "We don't want things going backwards.

"We have to acknowledge that the continued absence of functioning political institutions in Northern Ireland is, at least partly, a consequence of concerns about, and different positions on, Brexit."

He acknowledged some unionists were worried that Brexit could be used to undermine Northern Ireland's union with Britain.

He said: "I want to repeat that we have no hidden agenda.

Our agenda is fully transparent - it is respect for the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement and everything it represents for the people of these islands.

"That includes the principle of consent, peaceful politics, democratic institutions, reconciliation and co-operation."

Mr Varadkar added: "I am determined to work with the British Government, with the political parties in Northern Ireland, with the unionist and nationalist communities to chart a way ahead.

"We want to see all parts of the Agreement operating and I also want to see the great strides that we have made on North/South co-operation continue and grow in the years ahead."

Mr Donaldson's comments cane after DUP leader Mrs Foster said Mr Barnier did not understand unionist culture.

She told the BBC: "He's hearing a very strong message from the Republic of Ireland's government, he's hearing it from Sinn Fein.

We have tried to get him to understand the unionist position for the people of Northern Ireland, but he hasn't really responded to that and I'm disappointed about that.

In response, Mr Barnier said on Monday morning: "My door is open."

Mrs Foster also accused the EU of aggression, telling the broadcaster: "Some of the utterances from the European Union... there's an article in the Irish Independent today which is very aggressive in its tone.

"There are two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. We are part of the United Kingdom. They have to respect that constitutional reality."

Asked about the tensions when he arrived in Newry, County Down to meet business leaders, Mr Barnier said:

I don't want to engage or begin any kind of polemics with Arlene Foster.

Among business representatives meeting Mr Barnier in Newry later on Monday was Eamonn Fitzpatrick, chairman and founder of FM Environmental.

He said it seems that Northern Ireland is sometimes considered a "nuisance" to British politicians negotiating Brexit.

"It's very, very sad at the moment I think, very sad," he said.

Mr Fitzpatrick said it is difficult to find a politician that has "the common people at heart", adding: "Politicians are only interested in themselves."

The business founder, who praised Mr Barnier, added:

I just worry that we might get back to a very disruptive time.

PA

Earlier: Barnier urges speedy agreement on scope of any UK alignment with single market

Update 10:55am: Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has urged rapid agreement by June on the scope of any British alignment with the single market.

He said there should be "safety controls" to protect the European trading bloc.

Minister Simon Coveney (right) greets the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier as they arrive at the All-Island Civic Dialogue conference on Brexit, at the Dundalk Institute of Technology. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mr Barnier is on a two-day visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, where the Irish border is among the most thorny issues facing Brexit negotiators.

A backstop option for the EU withdrawal agreement would see continued Northern Ireland alignment with EU rules affecting the all-island economy, but any divergence from the rest of the UK would meet strong unionist objections.

Mr Barnier said: "We need to agree rapidly by June the scope of alignment, what I call the safety controls that are ... to respect the single market."

We want to succeed with the UK, not against the UK. Together with the Irish government we are looking for practical solutions.

This morning, Mr Barnier delivers a keynote speech during a meeting of the Irish government-hosted All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in the border town of Dundalk, Co Louth.

He then travels to Newry in Co Down for meetings with business leaders.

Tomorrow, Mr Barnier will visit the other, north-western end of the porous 310-mile border at Derry.

It will be the UK's only land border with an EU country after Brexit and is among the most vexed issues facing negotiators.

It is his third visit to Ireland and Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said he was a friend to Ireland.

Earlier, DUP leader Arlene Foster said Mr Barnier did not understand unionist culture.

She told the BBC: "He's hearing a very strong message from the Republic of Ireland's government, he's hearing it from Sinn Fein.

"We have tried to get him to understand the unionist position for the people of Northern Ireland, but he hasn't really responded to that and I'm disappointed about that.

"I am also disappointed that he will hear anti-Brexit voices tomorrow, he won't hear any pro-Brexit voices tomorrow because he is being taken around by Sinn Fein MPs."

In response, Mr Barnier said: "My door is open."

A joint report on the UK's withdrawal agreed in December by British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker included both British proposals, along with a third "backstop" option which would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union.

But a version published by the EU in February and agreed by the EU27 last month contained only the "backstop", effectively drawing a customs border down the Irish Sea, which a furious Mrs May said "no British prime minister could ever agree".

Mr Barnier has said that substantial parts of the withdrawal deal - including a solution for the Irish border - remain to be agreed by the autumn.

Earlier: Brexit negotiator does not understand Unionist culture, Arlene Foster claims

DUP leader Arlene Foster has claimed chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier does not understand unionist culture in Northern Ireland.

Mr Barnier is in Dundalk and Newry today before visiting Derry tomorrow.

Arlene Foster

Mrs Foster said: "I don't think he does understand the wider unionist culture of Northern Ireland.

"He's hearing a very strong message from the Republic of Ireland's government, he's hearing it from Sinn Féin.

"We have tried to get him to understand the unionist position for the people of Northern Ireland, but he hasn't really responded to that, and I'm disappointed about that.

"I'm also disappointed that he will hear anti-Brexit voices tomorrow, he won't hear any pro-Brexit voices tomorrow because he is being taken around by Sinn Fein MPs."

Earlier: Michel Barnier begins two-day Irish visit with Brexit meeting in Dundalk

The Taoiseach will meet with the EU's Chief Brexit negotiator in Dundalk this morning.

Michel Barnier will attend the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit along with Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

Michel Barnier

Business and political leaders from north and south of the border will meet to discuss Brexit and its potential impacts on the island.

Dundalk was chosen as the venue as it marks halfway between Dublin and Belfast with the government wanting to signal how important it is to have an effective solution to the border problem.

The Taoiseach will tell those attending that the Irish government remains committed to protecting the peace process in any Brexit deal.

The EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will attend the meeting and contributions will be made by parties north and south.

Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has repeatedly said substantial progress needs to be made by the June summit of EU leaders, with time starting to grow short on a deal that many want done by October.

Digital Desk


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