UK government advising businesses in North to breach law, says Sefcovic

European Commission vice-president claims firms are being told not to follow the rules

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic: ‘A lot of things which seem problematic right now are very much in the hands of the UK government.’ Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AFP via Getty Images

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic: ‘A lot of things which seem problematic right now are very much in the hands of the UK government.’ Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AFP via Getty Images

 

The British government is advising businesses in Northern Ireland to breach international law, the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has said.

It comes after the EU took the first step in legal action against Britain over its unilateral declaration that certain checks agreed as part of Northern Ireland’s special post-Brexit arrangements would not be applied until at least October.

“We have seen of this kind of guidance to the trade operators how not to fulfil the protocol and all the obligations stemming from the withdrawal agreement,” said Mr Sefcovic, who co-chairs the EU-UK Joint Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement, in an interview with a group of journalists. 

“They tell them: you do not have to do this, you do not have to do that, you don’t have to apply this until at least the 1st of October and then we will see.”

“If you do it as the last unilateral action have been adopted, you are actually pushing the whole sector into breaching the international law,” Mr Sefcovic added. “It’s very difficult to operate in the environment where the government which signed and ratified this international law document is actively advising the business community not to follow the rules and not to respect the law.”

Image abroad

The Slovakian diplomat, who last week briefed the US Congress’s influential Irish-American caucus the Friends of Ireland on the issue, said he had the impression that the behaviour of the administration of British prime minister Boris Johnson was harming the country’s image abroad.

“Now we are in the situation where we have [two] breaches of international law within six months,” Mr Sefcovic said. “I don’t think it helps the image abroad. That’s what I feel when I talk to my international partners. That is what I felt when I talked to the Friends of Ireland on the Hill, in US.”

He rejected an accusation made on Wednesday by British foreign minister Dominic Raab that the EU was “challenging the spirit of Northern Ireland protocol and the Good Friday agreement” by “trying to erect a barrier down the Irish Sea”.

“This is, if I put it diplomatically, a total misunderstanding of the deal we have signed,” Mr Sefcovic said.

“We offered in previous times customs union, common SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] area: all this was rejected and now we are faced with the consequences,” he added.

Many of the operational difficulties faced by traders in Northern Ireland are in the power of the British government to solve, and “80 per cent” would be solved if Britain agreed to common sanitary and phytosanitary standards, he said.

“A lot of things which seem problematic right now are very much in the hands of the UK government. Issuance of the certificates: ‘it takes too long, it’s very expensive.’ Who issues them, who charges for them? ‘The scheme is not working properly’: again, who is constructing the scheme?”

Regret

Mr Sefcovic expressed regret that the debate since January had turned to such operational issues, describing it as “blurring” the “unique opportunity” that access to both the UK and EU markets should represent for business in Northern Ireland.

“I’m sure it can create new jobs, it can bring new investment, it can create new business opportunities. But unfortunately we never get to that level of discussion,” he said.

On Monday, the European Commission formally began legal proceedings against Britain over its unilateral extension of grace periods, which it said breached the Northern Ireland protocol as well as violating “good faith” provisions of the withdrawal agreement, with a formal latter of notice. The UK has a month to respond.

First preference

Mr Sefcovic indicated his first preference is for the issue to be resolved constructively through dialogue with the UK, but that there are “a host of measures we both agreed” in the withdrawal agreement and the trade deal signed with Britain, including “level playing field mechanisms”, provisions for “non-cooperation in certain areas” or “specific import duties”.

However, it was a “solemn duty” of both the EU and UK to give certainty to people and businesses, he said.

“All these possibilities and options are on the table,” Mr Sefcovic said. “Of course it takes time, and I think that especially people in Northern Ireland but also in Ireland do not deserve that time of uncertainty, that unpredictability.”