EU negotiator warns UK ‘our patience cannot last forever’ on NI protocol

Sefcovic says ‘window’ remains open to solve dispute as Britain seeks to extend grace period

Maros Sefcovic, a vice-president of the European Commission, departs from Europe House in London last week. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Maros Sefcovic, a vice-president of the European Commission, departs from Europe House in London last week. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

 

A “window” remains open to solve the EU-UK Northern Ireland trade dispute after the UK sought to co-operate on chilled meats, the EU’s post-Brexit negotiator has said.

But the negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice-president, warned in a speech on Friday that a “downward spiral” in relations could ensue if Britain continues with unilateral action in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol, a part of the UK-EU Brexit withdrawal agreement that gives a special post-Brexit trading status to Northern Ireland and has given rise to the current EU-UK tensions.

British Brexit minister David Frost praised Mr Sefcovic’s positive words on further political dialogue, but warned that “time is now very pressing if we are to find solutions together”.

Mr Sefcovic welcomed the UK government’s move to seek temporary measures allowing sausages and other chilled meats to continue to cross the Irish Sea from Britain to Northern Ireland, the source of the latest flare-up in the dispute over the protocol.

Restrictions on shipments of chilled meats from Britain to the North had been due to come into force when a Brexit grace period expires at the end of the month, as the North would still align with the EU in certain respects.

But the UK on Thursday formally requested an extension of the grace period, which would allow sausages, burgers and mince to continue being sent from Britain to Northern Ireland until September 30th.

The European Commission said it would “assess” the request, which follows British threats to unilaterally extend the deadline if Brussels did not back down.

‘Positive results’

Mr Sefcovic told the College of Europe in Belgium on Friday: “I am convinced that there is still a window for productive political dialogue and positive results, particularly in light of the UK reaching out to us on chilled meats.

“And therefore, I trust that our UK counterparts will make use of this window with vigour and perseverance.”

Mr Sefcovic said the two sides are at a “crossroads” of either co-operating in good faith or the UK continuing unilateral actions.

“If the latter path is chosen, I fear a downward spiral in our relations, which would take our joint attention off a truly strategic future partnership,” he said.

“And in this case the EU will not be shy in reacting firmly and resolutely to ensure that the letter and the spirit of the protocol are respected.”

But he said “the clock is well and truly ticking”, adding that “our patience cannot last forever”.

And he also took a swipe at British prime minister Boris Johnson, who agreed to the protocol as part of securing his departure deal.

“Everyone around the table understood what these compromises meant in practice. The EU will not – and cannot – accept this delicate balance being unilaterally changed or disapplied because of buyer’s remorse,” Mr Sefcovic said.

Mr Frost, who led Brexit negotiations for the UK, welcomed his counterpart’s commitment to “find creative solutions where required”.

The Conservative peer added: “I agree, as he says, that there is still a ‘window for productive political dialogue and positive results’, and we remain ready to work with the EU on this – though time is now very pressing if we are to find solutions together.” – PA