BRUSSELS – The European Union’s chief negotiator in the Brexit talks said Wednesday that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union after the United Kingdom left the bloc, a move that would protect the Good Friday Agreement but provoked a backlash from the British Prime Minister, who said the proposal would undermine the country’s integrity.
The UK’s only land border with the EU separates Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, but the 1999 Agreement to guarantee peace in the area mandates that the frontier remain open, a requisite jeopardized by Brexit that has complicated negotiations between Michel Barnier and the Theresa May’s conservative government.
At a press briefing in Brussels, Michel Barnier said: “We have applied imagination and creativity to find a specific solution to the unique challenge that Brexit poses for the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.”
He said that if no other alternative was presented for the challenge, a common regulatory area should be established on the island of Ireland, a move that would keep a region of the UK more closely aligned to the EU post-Brexit.
But the proposal was swiftly rejected by May as she addressed lawmakers in the UK house of commons during the weekly question time.
“The draft, if implemented, would undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea,” she said. “No UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it,” she added.
Barnier said he was not trying to be provocative or create shockwaves and was looking forward to hearing the UK’s counter-proposals.
According to the EU draft treaty, a free movement of goods would be ensured on the island and overseen by the UK and the EU together, while Brussels would handle VAT issues in Northern Ireland to keep it in line with the bloc’s regulations.
The proposal riled supporters of a hard Brexit, with some claiming it could even be seen as a move by the EU to annex the region, while several Northern Irish unionists claimed a common regulatory area would separate Belfast from the rest of the UK.
Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party which currently props up May’s government, told the BBC that the draft agreement would split up the UK with catastrophic consequences.
Barnier said London and Brussels would be holding a new round of negotiations next week but that there was still significant points of disagreement between the two and talks needed to be sped up for Brexit to be successfully carried out.