EU Brexit chief says Northern Ireland protocol cannot become ‘eternal’ issue

DUP leader asks Nancy Pelosi to reflect on ‘damage’ post-Brexit measure is causing to the North

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic: He said the EU  aims to have all outstanding issues related to the North’s post-Brexit arrangements resolved by the end of the year. Photograph: John Thys/EPA

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic: He said the EU aims to have all outstanding issues related to the North’s post-Brexit arrangements resolved by the end of the year. Photograph: John Thys/EPA

 

The European Union aims to have all outstanding issues related to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements resolved by the end of the year, its lead official on the issue has said.

European commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said there was “unity” around the table as the EU’s 27 European affairs ministers discussed the issue in Brussels on Tuesday.

“What we need to focus on is the practical problems that people and businesses are facing,” said Mr Sefcovic, who briefed the ministers on his visit to the North to meet with stakeholders this month. “That should be our primary objective.”

He added that “this process cannot be eternal”, and that the EU aimed to “resolve outstanding issues by the end of the year”.

Mr Sefcovic is expected to outline a package of proposals in the coming days to ease the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol on the ground. These are expected to include adjustments to European legislation on medicines to help supplies flow from Britain, tweaks to agrifood checks, and customs.

There are concerns among some member states, however, that the British government could be prepared to use the sensitive Article 16 clause to unilaterally suspend parts of the agreement if it considers this to be in its political interests.

The UK Brexit chief David Frost warned last week that London was prepared to take the step unless there was a “real negotiation between us and the EU”.

Mr Sefcovic said that were this to happen the EU would use the tools available under the agreements signed with the UK government.

“We hope that we will avoid the scenario of Article 16 but of course the eventuality is there and if that is the case we would have to look through all the options we have,” he told reporters.

Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne played down the possibility that this could happen.

“Nobody wants to contemplate Article 16 because, first of all, that would be a disaster for Northern Ireland,” he said. “It would be completely self-defeating. I think people want to focus on our solutions to the problems.”

He also dismissed a claim by British prime minister Boris Johnson that Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte had offered to act as an intermediary between the EU and UK.

“We have been assured by our Dutch colleagues that those reports that he would intervene between Britain and the European Union are not correct at all.”

Belfast Agreement

Meanwhile, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has written to the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, asking her to “reflect on the damage the protocol is causing to Northern Ireland”.

He also sent Ms Pelosi a copy of the Belfast Agreement and said she should “recognise that the view of unionism can be no less worthy than the view of those wishing to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom”.

Mr Donaldson was responding to comments by Ms Pelosi at a Chatham House event in London last week, in which she said if there was “destruction” of the agreement it would be “very unlikely to have a UK-US bilateral” trade deal.

Later in the event she said in regard to the US-UK trade agreement “we probably will end up there but we have a path that has to come through the EU, recognising the importance” of the Belfast Agreement.

Mr Donaldson said he was writing to inform Ms Pelosi that the protocol was “the altar upon which the Belfast Agreement is being sacrificed”. He said “not a single elected unionist” supported the protocol but “your office still champions it”.