EU’s Sefcovic seeks ‘win-win’ solution to end disquiet over NI protocol

Appeal for ‘calm, constructive’ dialogue comes after Donaldson’s ultimatum

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in Belfast. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in Belfast. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has declared a “victory for all” solution can be reached in the deepening crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Ending a two-day visit to the North, Mr Sefcovic insisted a positive outcome to the impasse over the post-Brexit arrangements – which is threatening to derail powersharing in the region – was possible.

“I do not need any political victory here,” he said. “I want to find a solution which would represent win-win – victory for all, first and foremost for the people of Northern Ireland. That’s the goal, why I came here. That’s my attitude. That’s my approach.”

Mr Sefcovic was speaking after Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson threatened to collapse the Stormont Executive unless there were changes to the protocol within weeks.

Unionist leaders want the arrangement, part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, to be removed because it has created a de facto trade border for some goods moving between the North and Britain.

Checks are being carried out on the Irish Sea to ensure goods coming into the North meet EU standards, in order to protect the EU single market and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

On Thursday, Mr Donaldson ramped up pressure by threatening to trigger an election at Stormont. He said solutions were needed to “prevent the situation in Northern Ireland spiralling out of control”and that “time is short and consequences will follow”.

All the angles

At a press conference in Belfast on Friday, Mr Sefcovic said the EU was “working 24-7 to look at it from all the angles”.

He said Brussels wanted to “hammer out the solutions which would actually contribute to the positive developments and not to take us to the direction of uncertainty and instability because I think that after five years of going through this difficult period, we should now look to the future, close this chapter and look how can we achieve together the joint prosperity”.

“For us in the EU we wanted to have this problem solved already before the first of January of this year,” he said. “So can we do this faster? Let’s go for it. I mean, we are ready for engagement, we will be working as we’ve been until now, constructively with our UK partners. Let’s see how far and how fast we can progress.”

Standing by his earlier plea for parties in the North to “dial down the rhetoric” over unionist tensions about the protocol, he added: “I think that appeal for calm, for dialogue, for constructive engagement cannot offend anybody. And I will just repeat my invitation for this constructive, calm discussion.”

Extra mile

Mr Sefcovic also called for a “mutual spirit of co-operation” in talks to resolve the stand-off over the post-Brexit trading arrangements for the Irish Sea.

“We recognise, and that’s my purpose of the visit here, that some things have been proven more difficult than others,” he said. “But I think that because of that we just shouldn’t, you know, scrap the whole thing, because I know how difficult it was to get here and therefore I’m ready to go the extra mile to save the progress, to build on the achievements, which took us five years to build.”

Mr Sefcovic said the North craved “stability and predictability”, particularly in the business community.

Britain’s recently published proposals for resolving issues around the protocol would represent a “renegotiation” of the arrangements, something the EU would not countenance, he added. But he said compromise between the EU and UK was possible and said solutions could be found in agreeing “flexibilities” in how the protocol operates.