Both the DUP and UUP have warned the EU against interference in Northern Ireland after Brussel’s top official said the border was “not an Irish issue” but “a European issue” instead.
Jean-Claude Juncker said a controversial “backstop” proposal for full regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU “should not come as a surprise” to the UK because it “translates faithfully” the agreement reached between Theresa May and the EU in December.
He said the EU was ready to work with the UK on its preferred option of the border issue being resolved in the future trade deal, or by other specific measures.
But he added “we need to receive concrete proposals from the UK first”.
Mr Juncker said: “The 27 member states stand firm and united when it comes to Ireland. For us this is not an Irish issue, it is a European issue.”
But he was heckled by one MEP who shouted “it is a British issue”
He had been speaking in a debate with MEPs on the state of play of the Brexit negotiations earlier today.
Tomorrow, the European Parliament will vote on a motion put forward by the EU’s chief Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt calling for an “association agreement” to deal with the future UK-EU relationship.
The motion insists on a “binding interpretation role” for the European Court of Justice (CJEU) and rejects UK efforts to “cherry-pick” single market access for particular sectors, such as the financial services industry.
It also “emphasises” that the “backstop option” in terms of the Irish border which could see a customs break between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK “provides a concrete solution” in case “no alternative is found.”
DUP MEP Diane Dodds branded that “aggressive interference in the affairs of the United Kingdom.”
In a statement, she said: “This morning we hear of the EU desire for a close partnership with the UK post-Brexit, yet there is little spirit of conciliation and compromise. Nowhere is this more evident than in the draft legal text on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which this resolution supports.
“This is aggressive interference in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. It would be disastrous for Northern Ireland economically and it violates the principle of consent - a core principle of the Belfast Agreement. It goes well beyond the Belfast Agreement in its North-South proposals. In fact it is a text that no British Prime Minister could agree to and it has achieved the seemingly impossible - uniting the British Parliament against it.”
She added: “Last week my Party leader told Michel Barnier that we wanted practical solutions on the border. These proposals are a far step away from it.”
The Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson gave a similar reaction to the proposals.
Speaking after today’s debate, he said: “Two weeks ago, the Commission published its draft withdrawal agreement, containing proposals for Northern Ireland which - at best - show a disregard of the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent. At worst they read as an attempt to use Brexit to pull Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom.
“Then last week, Leo Varadkar and Donald Tusk chose to dismiss the Prime Minister’s reasonable call for talks between Brussels, Dublin and London on the border issue.”
He continued: “This kind of attitude is putting a strain on relationships and risks hardening opinion on all sides. They are playing a high stakes game with the United Kingdom, and with Northern Ireland in particular, but they are in serious danger of overplaying their hand.
“We should all have a shared aim - a deep and comprehensive future relationship between the UK and the EU. That is in the best interests of all sides. It is also the best way to deliver a Brexit that is reasonable, avoids a hard border and upholds the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and the Belfast Agreement. We can only achieve this if all sides work together.”
The Ulster Unionist MEP will, alongside his party leader Robin Swann, meet with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and its chief Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt in Strasbourg tomorrow.
Mr Nicholson added: “We will be raising these points with Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt tomorrow.”
Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson, however, said she hopes the resolution passes.
“This resolution currently before the European Parliament is hugely significant as is goes further in recognising that a special solution is needed for the North as a result of Brexit,” she said.
“This resolution calls for no diminution of rights, including employment rights and social rights. It also formally welcomes the backstop option which would see the north remain in the customs union.”
She continued: “It also states that our democratic rights in the north should not be reduced, signalling EU acceptance for people in the north to continue to have representation in the European Parliament.”
The Sinn Féin MEP added: “I look forward to this debate and the resolution passing with the support of Parliament.”