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On new EU frontier, Brexit chief tries to calm nerves

© AFP / by Jacques KLOPP | European Commission (EC) member in charge of Brexit negotiations with Britain, Michel Barnier (2nd L) walks a border road in Co Monaghan between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on May 12, 2017


A stream runs through the land where Kevin Black used to man a checkpoint on the border between the north and south of Ireland -- now a focus of concern as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.

The 50-year-old former Irish soldier goes shopping across the border in British-ruled Northern Ireland in an area that was once heavily militarised during three decades of conflict known as The Troubles.

"Having to cross a checkpoint would be crazy. Jesus, that would not be nice. No one here wants to go back to that again," he told AFP, remembering when there were "helicopters in the sky all the time".

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier visited the area where Black lives on Friday in a bid to reassure local residents that the European Commission was taking their concerns to heart.

Once Britain leaves, this will become the only land border between the UK and the European Union.

"We want to find solutions without reverting to some kind of hard border," Barnier said, after meeting local farmers and food industry executives in a region that is heavily reliant on exports to Britain.

Barnier also emphasised that he would "protect and preserve" the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended the three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland in which 3,500 people were killed.

Barnier has made Ireland one of his three priorities in the upcoming Brexit negotiations along with resolving the issue of EU nationals living in Britain and settling the bill to end British membership.

Britain is the second biggest trading partner for Ireland after the United States. In this farming region, many have already been affected by a plunge in the British pound since the Brexit vote last June which has made their goods more expensive.

- 'Can't overstate the damage' -

As Brussels and London prepare to launch tough negotiations, there are also worries about the security situation along the 500 kilometres (311 miles) of border.

"There are still dissident republicans who want to fight against the British and that will be a magnet for them," said Damian McGenity, a 43-year-old beef farmer who works in a supermarket in Jonesborough, a border town in Northern Ireland.

The border is currently open, ensuring the free movement of people and goods and some 30,000 people cross it every day to work in the north or south of ireland.

"We couldn't overstate the damage that will do," said McGenity, referring to a return of customs checks.

"Trade would stop north-south," he said.

"We live in Ireland. We don't see ourselves as living in a different country. Imagine putting up an infrastructure, barbed wire.

"That would be just something incredible that we could absolutely not tolerate, no way."

The fears of an economic downturn are particularly pressing in a region where the unemployment rate is currently just 3.0 percent compared with 25 percent during the Troubles before a peace agreement in 1998.

The economies of the north and south are now extremely interconnected but that may not be for much longer once Britain leaves Europe's single market.

"This would be a financial disaster for as small a country as Ireland," said David McNamee, a 56-year-old delivery driver who lives in the area.

- 'Security target' -

The border now is only virtual, crossing imperceptibly through fields, villages and even homes.

The only distinguishing mark is the speed signs -- in kilometres in the south and miles in the north.

Ben Tonra, a professor of international relations at University College Dublin, said the risk to the economy and the security situation was real.

"If you introduce border posts, if you introduce custom checks, you provide a visible representation of the border, which many people oppose.

"And for some people who have used violence in the past and might use violence in the future, that is then a security target," he said.

Tonra said finding a solution will require "imagination and flexibility", for example by granting Northern Ireland a special customs status within the EU that would avoid the need for border checks except for at ports and airports.

"It is incredibly complex and it is going to be incredibly difficult and it will require an enormous amount of work," he said.

by Jacques KLOPP

© 2017 AFP