Verhofstadt: ‘An illogical divide’

In September a group comprising of TDs, Senators, MEPs, MPs and MLAs met at Leinster House, Dublin to receive Guy Verhofstadt MEP, Brexit Co-ordinator for the EU27, as he outlined the position of the European Parliament on the future of Northern Ireland, going into the Brexit negotiations. Johnny McCarthy writes.

The all-island cohort of political representatives, with the notable absence of any unionist or Alliance Party representation, listened to Verhofstadt’s “message of solidarity with Ireland, its citizens and people”. The speech came as part of a two-day visit to the island of Ireland, which also included a visit to Stormont to meet with MLAs; as well as a segment of the border in county Monaghan which, as Verhofstadt said: “meanders for 310 miles through meadows, forest and farmlands, it is….an illogical divide.”

The Brexit Co-ordinator’s speech covered his admiration for the Good Friday Agreement and its “successful innovation of citizenship” with regards to dual-nationality, as opposed to the “old-fashioned and reductionist” view of citizenship held by the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. He pointed out that the values of the European Union are the same as the values of its member states and he showed how Ireland has grown and become more diverse as part of the EU.

On the border itself, Verhofstadt exhibited an impressive grasp of the situation, using the example of a farm where “cows from the North ate grass in the South, they were milked in the North by a farmer from the South and their milk was bottled in the South”. He suggested that to re-instate a border would be more than surreal; it would be totally absurd. Explicitly clarifying the position of the EU27, he added, after a question from the Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan, that “the red line for the European Parliament would be no hard border”.

On the subject of possible solutions to the border issue, the MEP stated that he had heard many options and many believe that the only option is for Northern Ireland to remain part of the customs union and the single market. He asserted that the UK’s position of the border issue being resolved through the use of new technology was “not convincing”.

Verhofstadt made reference to the issue of citizenship, saying that the position of the European Parliament, which will be expressed in a new resolution in October, is that EU citizenship must be fully protected for the hundreds of thousands Northern Ireland residents that have Irish passports. EU citizenship, he said, is not something from which one can pick and choose, particularly with regards to voting rights. It is a concept and must be protected.

Verhofstadt spoke for 30 minutes and took questions for over an hour afterwards, which left those present markedly impressed at the level of competency held by the EU’s Brexit Co-ordinator in relation to Irish matters. He answered all questions fully and with great comprehension, even dealing comfortably with an unscripted question about the European Union’s external borders and the migrant crisis. He then sat for lunch with many political representatives, adding to the feeling that he was ‘one of us’. When this is contrasted with Theresa May’s single visit to the Balmoral Show and a few lines in a speech, it is rather striking.

Also obvious, within the all-island context of the meeting, was a feeling of immense opportunity for the island of Ireland as a small nation to help shape the future of the European State in this most unique of circumstances.

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