EU post-Brexit negotiator is ‘confident’ of imminent solution to chilled meats issue

Sefcovic tells Assembly committee EU is willing to take ‘bold steps’ to resolve protocol issues

Maros Sefcovic is the senior European Union official with responsibility for the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Maros Sefcovic is the senior European Union official with responsibility for the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has said he is “confident” a solution can be found on the post-Brexit importation of chilled meat products from Britain into Northern Ireland before a deadline on the issue on Thursday.

Addressing members of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Executive Office scrutiny committee on Monday, Mr Sefcovic said that while he “cannot today announce the EU’s formal agreement to the UK government’s request [for an extension to the deadline], after all the internal contacts I have had I remain confident that we can find a solution within the next 48 hours that will address both sides’ needs and concerns”.

“I hope to be bringing such optimism to Northern Ireland more in the future,” he said.

The UK government has requested an extension to the post-Brexit grace period allowing for the continued importation of chilled meats from Britain into Northern Ireland. The grace period is currently in force but is set to expire on June 30th.

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement that avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland, the North remained part of the EU single market for goods after Brexit, while the rest of the UK did not. The bloc does not usually permit the importation of chilled meat products such as sausages from outside the EU, a restriction which would continue to apply to the North. The implementation of the protocol has become a source of recent tensions both between the EU and the UK and within Northern Ireland.

In a highly unusual move, Mr Sefcovic – who is the senior EU official with responsibility for the protocol’s implementation – appeared virtually before the special sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Executive Office scrutiny committee on Monday afternoon.

He told the Stormont committee the EU was willing to consider “bold steps” – which could include changing EU laws – to resolve outstanding issues in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol, provided the UK government “demonstrates a clear and concrete commitment to implementing the protocol in full”.

He noted that a Swiss-style veterinary arrangement between the two sides would “do away with the vast majority of checks in the Irish Sea and would not require checks elsewhere”.

In the “many contacts” he had had with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, he said, there had been “positive feedback” for such a proposal.

“I want to see necessary checks reduced to [the] absolute minimum possible,” said Mr Sefcovic.

Mr Sefcovic was also critical of what he described as “negative rhetoric” about the protocol and said the EU was “gravely concerned” by this.

The protocol, he said, limited “considerably” the impact of Brexit in the North and “actually creates opportunities” which, when combined with Northern Ireland’s “unique selling points”, made it a “unique place to invest” and provided a “powerful incentive to attract investment from overseas”.

Mr Sefcovic said it was “no wonder” Invest NI had identified more than 30 new potential inward investment opportunities this year, and he said his idea of an investment conference in Northern Ireland with businesses from EU member states had already had a positive response in the EU and Northern Ireland.

Brexit vote

Opening the meeting, the committee chair, SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, emphasised that the majority of people in Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit, and a majority in the Assembly do not support it.

During the session Mr Sefcovic responded to questions from a number of unionist Assembly members who outlined their opposition to the protocol, including the DUP MLA George Robinson, who called for it to be “scrapped”.

Mr Sefcovic said he had been “listening very carefully to everyone and I haven’t heard what would be a better solution or a better alternative to the protocol.

“So I absolutely understand that we have a difference of opinion on this but I’m absolutely sure that we fully agree on the necessity to find the best possible solution for the people of Northern Ireland.”

He rejected a claim by DUP MLA Christopher Stalford that the “rigorous and aggressive regime” of customs checks under the protocol was “an untrammelled exercise in power to try and strongarm the United Kingdom” into signing up to a Swiss-style SPS arrangement.

“I cannot under no circumstances accept the fact that we are trying to use Northern Ireland to punish the UK. That’s not true, sir, I can absolutely assure you of that,” Mr Sefcovic said.

Mr Sefcovic also rejected the suggestion from unionists that the protocol changed the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, saying that Britain and the EU agreed the protocol “in no way violates the constitutional order of the UK”.

“The first article in the protocol is about our full respect of the constitutional arrangements of the UK,” he said.

“It’s very clear not only through this protocol but also through our very concrete steps over the course of the last 20-plus years, we have demonstrated through our peace programmes that we are your friends, we were always at your side and we only acted when you requested us to act.

“Therefore for us this stability, no hard Border, are absolute fundamental principles which we have been respecting throughout the negotiations and which are paramount for us also today.”

Mr Sefcovic said the meeting had been “open, honest and constructive” and agreed to a suggestion from Mr McGrath for another meeting, which could potentially be scheduled for early autumn.

Political response

Speaking in the Assembly later on Monday, the North’s Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, welcomed the prospect of a possible agreement on an extension to the grace period on chilled meats.

“That is good, we should bank that, but what we need are longer-term solutions and I hope that we can find those solutions in the period ahead,” she said.

However, the DUP MLA Diane Dodds, who was at the meeting with Mr Sefcovic on Monday, accused him of being “only prepared to countenance one possible outcome”.

She said the “EU’s approach to flexibility appears to be that you can have any solution you like so long as it’s their pre-ordained outcome.

“Having said he wanted to listen to the views of the Northern Ireland Assembly the real challenge for Maros Sefcovic is demonstrating that he has not just listened to the genuine concerns outlined to him today, but to act upon them.”

The latest developments come amid concerns that loyalist anger arising from the protocol could boil over during Northern Ireland’s loyalist marching season during the summer.

Additional reporting: – PA