‘Honour’ of British government at stake on NI protocol
Renouncing principles would be ‘astonishing’ move by UK, says French foreign minister
President Michael D Higgins with French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at Aras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Maxwells
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that the “dignity” and “honour” of the British government are at stake regarding the respect of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Le Drian spoke at the government guest house at Farmleigh during a 24-hour visit to Ireland, the first by a European cabinet minister in more than a year. Mr Le Drian was accompanied by the French Minister for European Affairs Clément Beaune.
“I cannot imagine that British dignity and honour would allow them to renounce principles that have just been voted. That would be astonishing,” Mr Le Drian said when asked by The Irish Times how France and Ireland can “save” the protocol when their interlocutors in London and Belfast appear determined to destroy it.
The EU notified the UK that it was in breach of its obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol on March 25th, after London unilaterally extended the “grace period” during which it was not required to carry out certain checks. France says the UK has also broken the agreement it signed on fisheries.
“We expect something very simple of the UK,” Mr Beaune said. “The complete, rapid respect of the commitments it made. The EU is not asking favours of the UK . . . I cannot believe the UK does not respect its signature or keep its word.”
Threats to the survival of the Northern Ireland protocol dominated the French ministers’ talks with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, Minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne and President Michael D Higgins. Unionists have expressed their desire to end the agreement by July 12th and David Frost, the British minister responsible for relations with the EU, is reported to support that objective.
Mr Le Drian said the protocol is necessary for maintaining the integrity of the single market and to preserve the Belfast agreement. If the UK withdraws its agreement then “the word of Great Britain will be in question and that is unimagineable”, he said.
Mr Coveney said the protocol was “negotiated, designed, agreed, voted on and ratified as part of the withdrawal agreement by both the UK and the EU . . . The protocol is not the problem. It’s the forced disruption that Brexit brings, the kind of Brexit that was chosen by the British government.”
Mr Coveney said the number of checks in ports in Belfast and Larne could be reduced by 80 per cent if the British government were willing to agree with the EU a common approach to standards in relation to veterinary practices and sanitary standards on food.
“There is a way forward here,” said Mr Coveney. “But it has to be on the basis of partnership, not a British government trying to outmanoeuvre the EU politically.”
Mr Coveney alluded to a visit to Ireland by President Emmanuel Macron later this year. Mr Le Drian confirmed that the French leader will visit Ireland this year.
Mr Le Drian said he hopes that the mandatory quarantine imposed on visitors from France will soon be lifted. The French do not understand why the rule has been lifted for Austria and Italy but not France, where the rate of Covid-19 infection is falling rapidly.