Northern Ireland

Michel Barnier: Irish border checks 'unavoidable'

Michel Barnier Image copyright AFP
Image caption Michel Barnier is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator has repeated that a UK decision to leave the single market and customs union would make Irish border checks "unavoidable".

Michel Barnier was speaking in Brussels.

He made his comments at the conclusion of a week of technical discussions between civil servants on both sides.

Earlier this week, Downing Street said the UK would not be in a customs union after Brexit.

Mr Barnier also said the UK's agreement that it could continue to follow some EU rules to prevent a hard border needed to be included in the withdrawal agreement.

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Media captionEU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says border checks 'unavoidable'

He also warned that without a withdrawal agreement there could be no transition period.

In December, the UK said it would prevent a hard border either in the context of an overall deal, a special deal for Northern Ireland, or by continuing alignment with some EU rules.

Image caption Mr Barnier (right) was speaking on Friday at the conclusion of a week of technical discussions between civil servants on both sides

Mr Barnier said the EU must now start legally defining how the alignment scenario would work and "there must be no ambiguity here".

He added that based on the discussion this week, the UK has accepted the necessity of discussing how to make this alignment scenario operational, provided the other two options are discussed in parallel.

The SDLP's Brexit spokesperson, Claire Hanna, said she welcomed Mr Barnier's "strong defence of Northern Ireland's economic, social and political interests".

"If Theresa May does not alter course, Michel Barnier is right to say in no uncertain terms that withdrawing from the single market and customs union will 'make border checks unavoidable'," she added.

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said that flexibility was needed in the Brexit negotiations and that "there need not be anything inevitable about border checks if a deep and comprehensive future relationship can be agreed in phase two of Brexit talks".

DUP MEP Diane Dodds said the "best vehicle for finding border solutions is via the future UK-EU relationship, through a comprehensive free trade agreement and a fresh customs partnership with Brussels".

"Everyone has committed to avoiding a hard border and the UK has said it will not impose physical infrastructure at the border," she said.

"It seems it is only the EU that is brandishing the threat of customs controls."

In June 2016, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU Referendum by a majority of 56% to 44%.

However, the UK, as a whole, voted by a narrow margin to leave the EU.

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