EU rules out post-Brexit 'hard border' with Northern Ireland
By Eric Maurice
The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland should be "as open as possible" after Brexit and Northern Ireland should keep a right to fast-track EU membership, the Irish prime minister and European Commission chief said on Thursday (23 February).
"There should not be a return to a hard border of the past and there won't be," Enda Kenny told journalists after meeting Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
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A few days earlier he had said the issue was "a matter of vital national interest".
Kenny added on Thursday that he did not want Brexit to bring back customs posts and the "old style border [when] you had sectarian violence" in Northern Ireland.
He was supported by Juncker, who said that the EU did "not want to have a hard border"
"We want land borders being as open as possible," he said, adding that "the EU and Ireland must work together to minimise the impact of Brexit on Irish citizens".
After the UK leaves the EU, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, will become an EU external border, with potential consequences for people's movement and for trade.
Meeting with Juncker and the EU's main Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, a few days before the UK government launches the Brexit process, Kenny said his country faced a "very special set of circumstances".
He said that the border, the peace process, the travel area with the UK and citizenship issues were what concerned Ireland the most ahead of the Brexit talks.
Ireland has the most to lose from Brexit due to its geographical, historical, cultural and economic ties with the UK if the Brexit process turns ugly.
Ireland, whose economy is deeply dependent on international relations, is vulnerable to changes in its trade environment, and would be even more so if the UK left the single market and the EU customs union.
EU access for Northern Ireland
Kenny's visit was part of a series of meetings by him and his foreign minister Charlie Flanagan with leaders and ministers from the other 27 EU countries.
The Irish PM noted that the impact of Brexit on Ireland's economy and trade could not be measured as long as the British government had not "clarified" its intentions.
Trade aside, for Ireland, the most sensitive issue is the future of the Northern Ireland peace process and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that regulates it.
Kenny demanded that "the language of what's contained in the Good Friday Agreement will also be contained in the [Brexit] negotiation outcome".
He said that meant that Northern Ireland should "have easier access to join" the EU "in some future time, whenever that might be".
He referred to a clause in the Good Friday accord allowing for unification between the North and South of the island after a possible referendum.
In that ever happened, he said, Northern Ireland should join the EU automatically just as eastern Germany did "in a seamless fashion" after it rejoined western Germany in 1990.
"That's already in the Good Friday Agreement", he said.
'Like a poem'
The peace agreement also upholds "the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose", something Ireland insists on keeping after Brexit.
"In no way should [the agreement] come under risk," Juncker said on Thursday.
"The Good Friday Agreement is like a poem, it speaks for itself," he said.
Kenny was in Brussels amid rumours back home that he will step down after a visit to the US mid-March, but he refused to comment on his future as prime minister after a series of scandals, including one on alleged polic misconduct, and amid growing discontent in his party.
He said he was "focused entirely on the political issues here" in Brussels and the future of EU-UK relations.
He said that was "a necessity in so far as possible to achieve the continuation of the closest possible relationship between the UK and EU".