The Province’s two unionist MEPs have described as “pathetic” and “unhelpful” an insistence by the EU that it is not responsible for positing solutions to the question of the Brexit border.
UUP man Jim Nicholson and the DUP’s Diane Dodds, respectively, were reacting to a fresh document published by the EU’s Brexit task force on Thursday morning.
In addition to condemning the EU negotiating team’s hands-off approach to resolving Irish issues, Mr Nicholson said the case is now growing for the Republic, not Northern Ireland, to seek special status within the EU – a reversal of the call often made by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
Thursday’s document (entitled ‘Guiding principles transmitted to EU27 for the Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland’) sets out the EU’s positions on the border and the peace process.
In many respects, the document – which, according to an accompanying statement, was drafted “in close cooperation with the Irish government” – mirrors positions already outlined by the UK negotiating team, including calling for the Good Friday Agrement to be respected, continuing to provide cash for peace-building, and rejecting the idea of a “hard border”.
However, in the announcement accompanying the document, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said “as it was the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, it is the UK’s responsibility to come forward with solutions to overcome the challenges for the island of Ireland”.
Both the UUP and DUP were critical of this stance.
Mr Nicholson said it amounted to “abdicating responsibility”. He said: “It is welcome that all parties involved – the Government, the EU, Belfast and Dublin – do not want a hard border.
“However it’s bizarre that, on the one hand, this paper says there must be a flexible solution that avoids a physical border, but on the other hand insists that it is only up to the UK Government to provide such a solution.
“Michel Barnier and his colleagues are sitting on their hands, which is a pathetic position to take given the issues at stake.”
Recalling a controversy from July, when a report in The Times of London suggested Dublin wanted to make the Irish Sea the de facto Brexit border (SPARKING MASSIVE CRITICISM FROM UNIONISTS – READ MORE HERE), he said: “Not only would this have serious negative consequences for Northern Ireland’s economy, placing an international border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it would also be a clear breach of the principle of consent and the Belfast Agreement that EU negotiators have pledged to protect.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the Republic of Ireland needs to urgently seek special status.”
This idea that the Republic should seek special status has been suggested before earlier in the year by the TUV’s Jim Allister and by the DUP’s Lee Reynolds.
Diane Dodds meanwhile said the EU’s “insistence that responsibility for ensuring an open and seamless border after Brexit lies with the UK is unhelpful”.
She added that “whilst this paper repackages many of the border priorities shared by both sides, it does not bring forward a single proposal”.
Thursday’s EU paper calls for “flexible and imaginative solutions” to the border issue – which should not include “any physical border infrastructure” – whilst also ensuring the Republic’s place in the single market and customs union is unchanged.
It puts forward six positions – namely that both the EU and UK, as backers of the Good Friday Agreement, should “continue to support peace, stability and reconciliation”; that “ensuring the avoidance of a hard border” is key to the peace process; that north-south co-operation must continue; that no-one should end up with fewer rights due to Brexit; that Irish citizens in the Province should continue to enjoy EU citizenship; and that commitments made under the PEACE and INTERREG EU funds should be fulfilled.
In large measure it is similar to the contents of a paper put forward by the UK government on August 16, setting out its own positions.
Mr Barnier yesterday accused Theresa May of trying to get the EU to suspend its laws, customs unions, and single market in the six counties of Northern Ireland.
“What I see in the UK’s paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland worries me... the UK wants to use Ireland as a kind of test case for the future EU-UK customs relations. This will not happen.”