Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has accused European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic of “wilfully misrepresenting” Britain’s demands on the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Lewis was responding to an article in the Daily Telegraph in which Mr Sefcovic said he was increasingly concerned that Britain was set on confrontation with the European Union.
“Not one of the business representatives I met in Northern Ireland … asked me to scrap the protocol. Rather, they asked me to fix practical challenges they experience in implementing it,” Mr Sefcovic wrote.
“I am increasingly concerned that the UK government will refuse to engage with this and embark on a path of confrontation.”
Mr Lewis said Britain was not trying to get rid of the protocol but seeking changes that would make it more acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland.
“The UK government is not arguing to scrap the protocol and never has. This is a wilful misrepresentation of the position outlined in our command paper in July,” he said. “The UK has ultimate responsibility for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. What we are seeking is to make changes with the sole purpose of finding more durable arrangements that work best for the people of Northern Ireland.”
British and European Union negotiators are meeting in Brussels for a second week of talks about the EU’s offer to eliminate most checks and procedures for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
But Brexit minister David Frost has warned that Britain will unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol if the role of the European Court of Justice in policing it is not removed.
At the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow on Monday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin spoke briefly with US president Joe Biden, who reaffirmed the support of the United States for the peace process and the Belfast Agreement.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Martin praised Mr Sefcovic’s article on the protocol and said the EU’s proposals were a good basis for agreement.
“I think Europe has come a long way in respect of the operational details of the protocol. They’ve listened to people on the ground and the various industrial business sectors and people in community groups.
“So huge progress has been made and I believe that UK government should respond in kind. It’s in the best interest of the Good Friday Agreement, it’s in the best interest of people of Northern Ireland, who will have access to the European single market as well, of course, as access to the Great Britain market,” he said.
Mr Martin urged Britain to act constructively in its dispute with France over licences for French boats to fish in coastal waters off Jersey and Guernsey.
The Taoiseach said Ireland stood in solidarity with France, which has threatened to block British fishing boats from its ports and to step up checks on British freight lorries.
“We believe European Union and the UK government need to engage constructively in a whole range of issues, not least fisheries. And there is a concern that the UK government has not engaged in a constructive manner on quite a number of files,” he said.
“But I believe that there are discussions under way between the UK government and the French government and that they may be in a position to get that issue resolved. But we would again, given our own situation, like to see that resolved independently of the protocol.”