Ursula von der Leyen set to take questions from MEPs in the European Parliament
Commission reviewing communication with Irish officials after triggering of Article 16
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is to take questions from member states over the Article 16 triggering. File photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
The European Commission is reviewing how regulations are made and its communication with Irish officials in a bid to avoid a repeat of a blunder seen to have destabilised Northern Ireland’s delicate post-Brexit settlement.
It follows the use of the sensitive Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in an initial version of a regulation last month, a move that was hastily reversed after urgent calls from Dublin.
Irish officials were only informed that the article had been used after the regulation had already been published, which immediately caused a furore in Dublin, Belfast and London and questions about how communications had broken down.
The article allows for the temporary suspension of parts of the special arrangements designed to reconcile Brexit in Northern Ireland with the need for an open border on the island. Invoking it had been a rallying cry of those opposed to checks between Northern Ireland and the island of Britain, and its use has led to a new campaign by the Democratic Unionist Party to unpick the agreement with the EU.
Irish officials met with the European Commission on Tuesday to talk over the incident and review how communication can be improved in the future, in a meeting said to have been positive.
Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic also gathered with a dozen Commissioners on Tuesday to discuss the ways in which their work could touch on aspects of the relationship with Britain, and there are plans for such meetings to be held regularly, The Irish Times understands.
Anything to do with Northern Ireland is to receive additional scrutiny, with the team of Ireland’s Commissioner Mairead McGuinness brought in to be consulted where needed.
“It’s a widening of consultation, to make sure Irish eyes and ears are brought in to make sure there’s no repeat of the mistake,” a senior official said.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier is shortly due to retire and Mr Sefcovic will be in charge of the brief in future. Since the end of the talks, many personnel who were involved in dealing with Irish matters have changed roles or moved on.
This is thought to have contributed to the circumstances that saw Article 16 used without an awareness of the political problems it would cause on January 29. In addition, the regulation was rushed through under emergency procedure, which does not require formal consultation with member states, and adopted by written procedure which does not call for physical meetings.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is set to take questions from MEPs in the European Parliament over the affair on Wednesday.
In the wake of the Commission’s blunder, UK prime minister Boris Johnson warned he could use Article 16 to suspend arrangements unless checks on goods entering the North were eased. Michael Gove also wrote to the Commission requesting far-reaching changes to the current arrangements, including extensions to grace periods on food checks.
The letter was ill-received by the Commission and by member states, according to diplomats and officials, who have described it as asking for unrealistic changes, seeking to exploit tensions over the Protocol, and akin to an ultimatum. The Irish Sea checks are now effectively the edge of the EU’s Single Market, meaning the scope to reduce controls is limited.
Mr Sefcovic is due to travel to London to meet with Mr Gove on Thursday this week to discuss the issue.
Irish officials were only informed after an initial version of a regulation that contained the sensitive Article 16 of the Northern Ireland