Brussels warns UK threats over Northern Ireland protocol could break peace
The EU’s Brexit negotiator has urged the UK to engage with Brussels over Northern Ireland, warning that breaking their trade deal could damage peace and stability in the region .
Maros Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission, was responding to threats from the UK to draft legislation next week to remove parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs post-Brexit trade on the island of ‘Ireland.
In an interview with the FT, Šefčovič described the protocol as “a measure for peace”. “I don’t see how this [UK move] promotes peace, stability and predictability for Northern Ireland and for the island of Ireland,” he said.
The UK government has received legal advice that overriding parts of the protocol would be justified in order to support the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the region.
On Friday, the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party blocked the election of a new speaker to the region’s National Assembly, blocking the formation of an executive, until the protocol is dropped.
Unionists say the deal undermines the region’s ties with the UK as it puts a trade border for goods in the Irish Sea.
Šefčovič declined to say how Brussels would react to any unilateral decision by the UK on the protocol, but said it was “unacceptable for us” to change an international agreement less than two years old.
“I would say that there is a united position of all EU member states and [European] parliament,” he said.
An EU ambassador told the FT that Brussels would respond calmly “but firmly” to any unilateral action by London. “Constantly attacking protocol is not only totally unnecessary, but quite irresponsible and playing with fire given the risk of polarization inside Northern Ireland,” said the ambassador.
Diplomats have said the EU is likely to wait for any UK legislation on the protocol to pass through parliament before responding. But steps he could take include scrapping the post-Brexit trade and co-operation deal, which would introduce tariffs on UK exports to the single market.
However, diplomats have stressed that in the meantime Brussels may reactivate legal action against London for failing to implement full border controls in Northern Ireland. He suspended the process in July 2021 to strengthen the negotiation process.
Šefčovič said Northern Ireland had a “unique opportunity” to develop its economy as part of the UK and European markets, and added that the region’s business community supported the current arrangements. However, he warned that uncertainty surrounding the protocol was holding back investment.
“There are a lot of new investment opportunities that are on the shelf . . . because these big investors from the United States, Canada, Europe . . . are waiting to see how it would play out,” a- he declared.
Šefčovič said that if the UK decided to override the protocol, Brussels would have to impose customs and animal health checks on the goods, but did not specify how or where these checks would take place.
“We are, of course, responsible for the integrity of the entire single market. And I think it’s absolutely clear that it would be unacceptable to have an unguarded back door to the single market,” he said.
Dublin fears that unilateral action by the UK could disrupt its own trade with the EU. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, warned in a BBC interview on Friday that the Irish economy could become “collateral damage”.
Šefčovič acknowledged that the protocol had affected intra-British trade and proposed less controls on cargo from Britain bound for Northern Ireland. “If we work together, we know how to reduce checks by 80% and we offer express lanes. Ditto for customs procedures, cutting them at least in half.
However, Liz Truss, UK Foreign Secretary, argues there should be no checks on UK cargo going to Northern Ireland.
Šefčovič said he could only discuss these changes if the UK implements the measures it has already agreed, such as allowing EU officials real-time access to comprehensive customs data. .
“It’s really a very small effort for the UK to make to make sure this system works,” he said. “There is a basic prerequisite [for concessions] that we must also feel that the United Kingdom is ready to meet us halfway. . . that we would have access to the computer system, that they accept the fact that there must be minimum controls.
He added: “I want this to end well for EU-UK relations because I think we really need to close this chapter and build a new one.”