Jim Nicholson: The Irish border is the big challenge in UK-EU talks

Officials know that the border will be the biggest challenge for both the EU and the UK in Brexit negotiations

Officials know that the border will be the biggest challenge for both the EU and the UK in Brexit negotiations

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We must avoid high agricultural tariffs and an internal border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in any Brexit negotations on Europe.

Since the referendum vote I have been calling for a Brexit that works for all parts of the United Kingdom, and I welcome the fact that Prime Minister Theresa May has now stated that this is as her ambition.

Prime Minister Theresa May

Prime Minister Theresa May

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land frontier with the ‘EU27’. It is therefore crucial that from a regional perspective we get the detail of these negotiations right.

One of my biggest fears during the referendum and since the result was that we could end up with a ‘border’ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Theresa May’s comments are certainly a welcome signal that the UK government does not want to see this either.

We cannot risk becoming second class citizens in our own country.

Brexit - Ireland is planning for the eventuality of a hard Brexit but is not planning for the option of Irexit

Brexit - Ireland is planning for the eventuality of a hard Brexit but is not planning for the option of Irexit

It is clear that the UK government wants to begin these negotiations from the position of leaving both the single market and the customs union.

In negotiating our departure from the single market, the prime minister needs to ensure that we will not fall victim to punitive tariffs.

As it stands, the default tariffs of agricultural products into the EU are huge.

For example, WTO tariffs on UK exports would equate to 47% on milk, 40% on cheese and 40% on lamb.

Jim Nicholson, second from left, at the European Parliament last year

Jim Nicholson, second from left, at the European Parliament last year

Given that a large chunk of Northern Ireland’s agricultural produce is exported and the cross-border nature of supply chains, the sector locally could be decimated if it faces these tariffs.

Similarly, a bespoke customs agreement needs to be reached to allow goods to move freely across the border.

We do not want to go back to the days of lorries queuing up on either side of the border due to customs checks.

Sources I have spoken to on the EU side in Brussels are aware that the border will be the biggest challenge for both the EU and the UK in these negotiations.

We have received just the outline of the prime minister’s initial negotiating position.

We still have some way to go.

Jim Nicholson, MEP, Ulster Unionist Party