EU calls on UK to ‘reciprocate’ efforts at finding protocol solutions

Sefcovic says he will push to ‘resolve this matter’ in Thursday meeting with Frost

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic  appeared virtually before a Stormont committee on Wednesday. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic appeared virtually before a Stormont committee on Wednesday. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

 

The European Commission Vice President has called on the UK to “reciprocate” the EU’s efforts to find solutions to the problems posed by the Northern Ireland protocol and warned it was “now time to act” on issues like the supply of medicines.

Maros Sefcovic said he would “push ... to solve this matter” in discussions with the UK’s chief negotiator Lord Frost on Friday but stressed that “at the same time I also have to be very, very clear that we are ready to move on our own if it would be not possible to push at this stage on the joint approach.”

Mr Sefcovic appeared virtually before a Stormont committee on Wednesday to brief Assembly members (MLAs) on the ongoing EU-UK negotiations on the protocol. Mr Sefcovic and Lord Frost are due to speak again on Friday.

Mr Sefcovic told MLAs there was “no time to lose” and the EU was “sparing no efforts to reach a solution ... we will remain calm and constructive but also firm,” he said.

“Time is running out”, he warned, and said he would “push again ... to solve this matter” during Friday’s negotiations.

He said he hoped the UK government would “follow down the path of engaging to find solutions because this is in everybody’s interests.”

Referring to issues raised by the UK, Mr Sefcovic said now was “not the time any more to insist on things that civil society organisation or businesses have not [previously] identified as a problem ... things that we have unanimously made clear are not on the table, like renegotiations of the protocol or changing the role of the European Court of Justice in the application of single market rules,” he said.

The proposals from the EU, he said, “will deliver significant changes, they amount to a new model for the implementation of the protocol and can deliver a real difference for all people and businesses in Northern Ireland.

“We made an important move towards the UK with far-reaching proposals for solutions,” he said. “We need the UK Government to reciprocate this now, we have no time to lose, and what is most pressing is the need to ensure continued supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.”

The Northern Ireland protocol is part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, and avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, necessitating additional paperwork and checks on some goods arriving in the North from Great Britain.

Unionists in Northern Ireland are opposed to the protocol because they argue it is causing difficulties for trade and undermines the North’s constitutional position as part of the UK.

Concerns have also been raised over the supply of medicines to the North – which currently come mainly from Great Britain but which under the protocol would have to comply with EU rules – and some manufacturers have warned they will stop supplying Northern Ireland.

Peace process

Speaking to MLAs Mr Sefcovic stressed the “immense” benefits of the protocol for Northern Ireland and said proposals aimed at solving the issues around it had been put forward by the EU in October.

He also emphasised the body’s commitment to the peace process, the Belfast Agreement and the people of Northern Ireland.

He said the EU “fully recognise” the urgency around the supply of medicines and had put a solution on the table in June which was within the scope of the protocol.

“Therefore, I think it would be much better to focus on the practical solution to this matter because carving out certain sectors from the protocol would amount to the renegotiation of the protocol and very honestly I do not have the mandate for that,” he said.

He also said that even after only 11 months there were “quite a few positive signs” that the protocol was a “unique opportunity” for Northern Ireland.

The DUP MLA Diane Dodds said “no unionist party gives consent to the Northern Ireland protocol” and challenged Mr Sefcovic over how he intended to work to resolve this.

Mr Sefcovic said the EU was fully aware of the position and concerns of the unionist community in the North and was trying to demonstrate that the EU had “good answers” to these.

“I hope this continuous engagement, this openness, this extending the hand for the co-operation with all communities and the key political parties in Northern Ireland will bring us into the situation where we can show by the real proposals and real solutions that what we mean is indeed to find the best possible solution for Northern Ireland,” he said.