‘Ireland’s interests will be the EU’s interests’, says EU’s chief Brexit negotiator

Michel Barnier during a news conference after a meeting of EU finance ministers at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
Jasper Juinen | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Michel Barnier during a news conference after a meeting of EU finance ministers at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said that securing Ireland's interests and avoiding a hard border between with the U.K. will be at the forefront of upcoming talks.

In an address to the Irish houses of parliament Thursday, Barnier said that the Republic of Ireland, an EU-member state which shares a land border with the U.K., was in a "unique position" but pledged that it would receive additional attention in negotiations.

"I want to reassure Irish people that Ireland's interests will be the union's interests," said Barnier.

Ireland has voiced concerns that it will be most impacted by Brexit given the significant geographical, cultural and economic ties it shares with the EU.

"Brexit will come at a cost," Barnier said. "Also to us, the remaining 27 – and some more than others."

Currently, Ireland exports 40 percent of its goods and 20 percent of its services to the U.K. – twice the EU's average.

Barnier said that avoiding a hard border would be one of three priorities for the first stage of negotiations, reiterating guidelines set out by the EU late last month.

Barnier's address to members of the Oireachtas, which combines both Ireland's House of Representatives and the Senate, was the first of its kind and is considered something of an honor.

The opportunity is typically reserved for heads of state and prime ministers. The invitation to speak underlines the country's on-going diplomatic charm offensive to secure a good deal for Ireland

"It's a reflection of the importance of the role he has," Neale Richmond, the government spokesman of EU affairs in the Irish Senate said, according to the Financial Times. "That's why we are putting him on the same pedestal as John F Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, and Francois Mitterrand."

Carrick Kildavnet Castle, Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland
DeAgostini | Getty Images
Carrick Kildavnet Castle, Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland

A special case

Speaking ahead of Barnier's address Thursday, Sean Barrett, a politician within Ireland's governing Fine Gael party and former speaker of the lower house of parliament, said that Ireland should seek support from EU members to create a "separate deal" for the Republic of Ireland.

"We have a unique situation here that, in my opinion, deserves special attention. Our problems, which to us are very serious, will get lost in wider negotiations," he claimed, speaking during a joint committee session.

Domestic upheaval

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny has already said that he will not lead the country through Brexit negotiations, announcing in February that he would step down from the Fine Gael party ahead of the election due late next year.

The Irish Taoiseach told his party Wednesday that he would present his leadership plans next week, following an EU summit on Brexit.

However, this announcement has already undergone delays. It was anticipated that the center-right party's new leader would be selected in March after Kenny made his first – and last – state visit to the U.S. to meet President Donald Trump.

Either Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael's minister for social protection, or Simon Coveney, the party's house minister, are tipped as Kenny's most likely successor.

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