The European Union's lead Brexit negotiator paid a visit to Ireland, which faces particular uncertainty once the UK leaves the EU. Michel Barnier said he would work with the Irish to avoid a "hard border."
Barnier addressed the Irish parliament on Thursday, saying "if we are open to finding solutions, there is no reason why our strong Europe cannot maintain a strong relationship with the UK."
Ireland is an EU member with particularly close ties to the UK given the land border it shares with Northern Ireland, which belongs to the UK but will leave the EU once the Brexit is complete.
This leaves Ireland facing an uncertain future: currently, Ireland enjoys border-free trade with the UK under the EU's single market. Once the UK leaves the EU, border-free trade is no longer guaranteed.
As Barnier pointed out, "customs controls are part of EU border management, they protect the single market, they protect our food safety and our standards."
But there are concerns that a border implemented between Ireland and Northern Ireland would lead to increased tensions between the two countries, calling to mind decades of violence that ended in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement.
Michelle O'Neill, the Irish leader of the republican party Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, said after talks with Barnier there was "the need for the North to be designated special status within the EU with no border in Ireland, continued access to the single market and also to the customs union."
Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU during last summer's Brexit referendum.
Barnier said "the border issue" was one of his top three priorities of the early phase of the Brexit negotiations, in addition to protecting EU citizens' rights and settling the UK's financial obligations to the EU.
"Ireland's interests will be the union's interest," Barnier told Irish parliamentarians, adding that the "EU will be here for you."
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said Barnier has a "clear and precise understanding of the Irish position" on Brexit.
Following his speech in parliament, Barnier paid a visit to farmers at an Irish dairy cooperative near the border with Northern Ireland.
mz/kms (dpa, AFP)