EU official criticises UK government for failing on most NI protocol commitments

Richard Szostak cites temporary port infrastructure and issues over customs data

A top EU official has criticised the UK government for failing to live up to its commitments in "most areas" of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Richard Szostak, who has a leading role in the EU's post-Brexit talks team, said there were "structural issues" in the implementation of the protocol and cited temporary infrastructure at ports and issues over customs data.

“We still don’t have full access to it customs databases, and the permanent infrastructure to check sanitary and phytosanitary products entering Ireland has still not been completed,” he said.

Mr Szostak appeared before the EU scrutiny body, the Committee on International Trade, which held its first hearing on trade-related aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol on Tuesday.


He reaffirmed the EU’s position that the protocol was the “only solution” and said it had made a number of “far-reaching proposals, unique for Northern Ireland” in order to attempt to break the deadlock in negotiations between the UK and EU.

Despite “some progress” the positions of the EU and UK “remained far apart”, he said, but both sides were committed to finding “durable solutions”.

“The commission will continue to work flat out on these outstanding issues with the terms of the protocol and building on the far-reaching solutions that we presented and that we presented for discussion, never as a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

“The UK foreign secretary says she wants to work in the same direction, therefore, that is our focus,” he said.

Grace periods

Prof Katy Hayward of Queen's University Belfast outlined the practical impact of the protocol in Northern Ireland and said there was "concern and uncertainty" around what might happen if the grace periods were to end without agreement.

She said there was still “disruption and adjustment” for Northern Ireland businesses which were particularly reliant on trade from Britain, and the agri-food sector in particular faced “complex difficulties”.

In addition the “political instability connected to the protocol is also adding to some uncertainty and a lack of investment with respect to the economic situation,” she said.

“The flexibility shown by the EU will continue to be needed and of course we need similar flexibility from the UK side as well.

“I’m very conscious that the EU is not to blame for Brexit, but at this point in time it very much does have the power to make the situation better or worse for Northern Ireland in the decisions it will make with respect to the protocol and in that regard all flexibility shown is very welcome,” she said.


The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber), Invest NI and the Consumer Council – who declined invitations to speak at the hearing – rejected criticism from Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews, who said it was "very disappointing that heightened political tension is cited as a reason for non-attendance when there has been heightened political tension in Northern Ireland for a very long time".

“Engagement is happening at a political level and it should happen at a business level and I just don’t buy the excuses for non-attendance today,” he said.

Both the NI Chamber and Invest NI said they were unable to attend due to existing diary commitments, and had made no reference to political tensions when responding to the invitation.

The chamber also said it was an active member of the NI business Brexit working group, and as such regularly engaged with MEPs and senior EU officials. Its partner organisation, Chambers Ireland, attended the session and was briefed by its Northern colleagues.

The Consumer Council said that as the focus of the committee was on trade, “as the representative body for consumers in Northern Ireland, we did not feel we would be best placed to provide evidence”.

The committee chairman, Bernd Lange, said some potential speakers had chosen not to take part in the session because of the "high temperature" ahead of the forthcoming Assembly elections in May.

He said, while he understood this position, “even regional elections should not undermine the clear try to find [a] proper solution for the implementation of the protocol”.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times