Ladies and gentlemen,
On 29 March 2019, in less than 6 months, the UK will leave the European Union.
We have always respected the UK’s sovereign decision to leave the European Union, even if we profoundly regret this vote We respect its decision to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.
And we are doing our best to reach a deal on the UK’s orderly withdrawal.
Since the beginning of this negotiation, we have made good progress.
In fact, as you can see in this copy of the draft Treaty, a lot of the Withdrawal Agreement – 80%-85% – has now been agreed with the UK.
However, some difficult issues have been left until the end.
We must agree on the governance of the Withdrawal Agreement and on geographical indications that are currently protected in the 28 EU Member States.
Above all, we need to agree on how to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland for political, human, and economic reasons.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The UK wants to and will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.
This means that there must be checks on goods travelling between the EU and the UK – checks that do not exist today:
- customs and VAT checks;
- and compliance checks with our standards to protect our consumers, our economic traders and your businesses.
We have agreed with the UK that these checks cannot be performed at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
A crucial question is, therefore, where they will take place.
The EU is committed to respecting the territorial integrity and constitutional order of the UK, just like the UK has committed to respecting the integrity of our Single Market, including Ireland, obviously.
Therefore, the EU proposes to carry out these checks in the least intrusive way possible.
For customs and VAT checks, we propose using the existing customs transit procedures to avoid doing checks at a physical border point. To be more specific:
o Companies in the rest of the UK would fill in their customs declarations online and in advance when shipping goods to Northern Ireland.
o The only visible systematic checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would involve scanning the bar codes of the lorries or containers, which could be done on ferries or in transit ports.
o These arrangements already exist within EU Member States, in particular those with islands, for example between mainland Spain and the Canary Islands.
For regulatory checks, on industrial goods for instance, these could be carried out by market surveillance authorities.
Again, this would not need to happen at a border but directly in the market or at the premises of companies in Northern Ireland.
This leaves the health and phytosanitary checks for live animals and products of animal origin. EU rules are clear: such checks must happen at the border because of food safety and animal health reasons. And obviously, in the future the island of Ireland will and must remain a single epidemiologic area.
o Such checks already exist in the ports of Larne and Belfast.
o However they would have to cover 100 % rather than 10 % of live animals and animal-derived products, which would involve a significant change in terms of scale.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Both the EU and the UK exclude having a physical border on the island of Ireland. Therefore what will arrive into Northern Ireland will also be arriving into the Single Market.
There will be administrative procedures that do not exist today for goods travelling to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Our challenge is to make sure those procedures are as easy as possible and not too burdensome, in particular for smaller businesses.
I understand why such procedures are politically sensitive, but let me make three remarks.
First, Brexit was not our choice. It is the choice of the UK. Our proposal tries to help the UK in managing the negative fall-out of Brexit in Northern Ireland, in a way that respects the territorial integrity of the UK.
Second, our proposal limits itself to what is absolutely necessary to avoid a hard border: customs procedures and the respect of EU standards for products.
It does not include measures on free movement of people, services, healthcare or social and environmental policy. But the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland will continue as today.
And yet, our proposal gives Northern Ireland benefits that no part of a third country enjoys. In particular continued access to the Single Market for goods and continued benefits from the EU free trade agreements.
Our proposal also includes the continuation of the island’s Single Electricity Market, as requested by the UK.
Over the past week, we have met the leaders of all Northern Irish political parties – many of whom I have met before, and many of whom I will meet again. My door is always open. And my team met on Monday a group of Northern Irish business leaders and a group representing local government.
Naturally, there were questions, doubts and worries about our proposal – and Brexit in general.
But most conversations focused on the added value for Northern Ireland so long as we can mitigate the burden of doing checks.
Third, our proposal is just a safety net, a “backstop”.
It is needed because the details of the future relationship will only be negotiated after the UK’s withdrawal.
But the future relation in itself might mitigate the necessary checks, or even make some unnecessary:
o For instance, a veterinary agreement would mean less frequent inspections of live animals.
o And we are still open to the idea of having a customs union with the UK. Such a customs union would eliminate an important part of custom checks.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Apart from the issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Withdrawal Agreement will include other important issues, on which we already agreed with the UK.
These issues are important for your businesses, your employees and your regions.
In particular, we already agreed that:
European citizens who arrived in the UK before the end of 2020 and British citizens who moved to other EU countries before that date can continue to live their lives as before. We remain in close contact with the organisations representing the citizens concerned, most notably to discuss the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
All financial commitments undertaken by the 28 EU Member States will be honoured by the 28, for instance on the European Social Fund and the regional policy. All current programmes will continue, with the UKs participation.
The UK will retain all the rights and obligations of a Member State for a transition period, until the end of 2020, at its request.
This will leave time for businesses to prepare.
And this will leave time to finalise the future relationship.
To be clear, all these points will enter into force on the condition that we agree on the whole Withdrawal Agreement, which must then be ratified, I hope in the beginning of next year by the UK and by the European Parliament.