British cabinet office minister Michael Gove and European commissioner Maros Sefcovic met in London on Thursday night as each side appeared to harden its position on implementing the Northern Ireland protocol. Arriving in London for the talks, Mr Sefcovic said the protocol, part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement, was the only way to avoid a hard Border in Ireland and that making it work was "a two-way street".
The British government has requested wide-ranging easing to the arrangements it agreed to for the North, including a two-year extension to “grace periods” that were given to allow businesses more time to adjust. This week, Mr Sefcovic ruled out far-reaching changes in a letter to Mr Gove. He said Britain needed to do more to implement controls that were agreed with the EU for Northern Ireland’s unique post-Brexit trade status, such as giving observers access to customs IT systems.
Boris Johnson's official spokesman described the European Commission vice-president's response as disappointing.
"We've set out the issues we want to see addressed and that is the purpose of the meeting. It is disappointing that the [European] Commission has failed to acknowledge the shock and anger felt across the community in Northern Ireland by its decision to trigger article 16 and the need to take urgent steps to restore confidence as a result," the spokesman said, referring to a recent move by the commission, quickly reversed, to trigger article 16 in the protocol as part of a bid to control Covid-19 vaccine exports from the EU.
The EU's former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Thursday that the difficulties experienced in Northern Ireland were a consequence of Brexit rather than the protocol. He said there was no possibility of reopening the relevant talks, adding that the negotiating period was over.
“Both parties must be conscious of their responsibilities in applying fully this protocol. The difficulties on the island of Ireland are caused by Brexit, not by the protocol,” he told a European Business Summit online event. “The protocol is the solution.”
Mr Barnier said a period of adjustment was to be expected as UK traders get used to new post-Brexit requirements for paperwork and checks on food.
“Many of these consequences have not been correctly explained, they have been generally underestimated,” he said.
The DUP's leader at Westminster, Jeffrey Donaldson, has accused the EU of attempting to "ramp up" the Northern Ireland protocol and increase post-Brexit trade disruption across the Irish Sea. He said Mr Sefcovic's letter in response to Mr Gove's demand for changes to the protocol showed intransigence.
“There is no proposal within the EU letter as to how we’re going to fix these problems. What they are actually proposing is to ramp up the protocol, is actually to increase the level of checks, to increase the disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” he told the BBC.
“Article 16 of the protocol is very clear: if there is a diversion of trade, if there is a societal or economic impact on the people of Northern Ireland, then one side or the other may act unilaterally to resolve that difficulty.”