The European Union's trade deal with the United Kingdom has "real teeth" and Brussels will not hesitate to use its enforcement measures if needed to hold Britain to its commitments, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has warned.
She spoke as the European Parliament prepared to vote on ratification of the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) signed last year, finalising a deal reached after years of difficult negotiations.
The deal was being voted on by MEPs late on Tuesday, with the result to be made known on Wednesday morning. They were expected to ratify the deal.
Some MEPs expressed qualms about approving the deal because Britain had yet to implement aspects of Northern Ireland’s special arrangements and had unilaterally extended grace periods on the implementation of some checks – triggering legal action by the EU.
Dr von der Leyen sought to assure MEPs that voting in favour of the agreement would provide for the mechanisms needed to enforce commitments.
“The agreement comes with real teeth – with a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility for unilateral remedial measures where necessary,” the commission president said.
“Let me be clear: We do not want to have to use these tools. But we will not hesitate to use them if necessary. They are essential to ensure full compliance with the TCA and the withdrawal agreement, which were both negotiated in such fine detail and agreed by both sides,” she said.
The trade deal sets out routes to resolve disputes, including consultation through committees, and ultimately the possibility of fines, or the imposition of tariffs by either side if breaches are not resolved.
Dr von der Leyen said there had been "some progress" and there was a "constructive dynamic" in talks on easing the implementation and impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol between commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and his counterpart Lord David Frost.
The deal "will give us the tools we need to ensure full and faithful compliance with the obligations, which both sides signed up to," Dr von der Leyen said. "It will also focus minds on finding pragmatic solutions where they are needed – most urgently around the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. "
However, she warned: "As John Hume himself used to say: There are no easy answers, nor quick-fix solutions."
‘Need for dialogue’
Speaking afterwards, Northern Ireland justice minister Naomi Long said that the protocol was "merely a symptom of our exit from EU, and not the cause of the challenges we face".
Nevertheless, she called for “proportionality” in terms of how the protocol is implemented, so that it “doesn’t disrupt trade within UK where that does not threaten the single market”.
Irish MEPs successfully pushed for the parliament’s resolution on the trade deal to include a commitment on “the need for ongoing and enhanced dialogue between political representatives and civil society, including with Northern Ireland representatives, on all aspects of the Protocol”.
The push for formal links and regular consultation between the European Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly came in the wake of a blunder by the European Commission earlier this year, when it came close to triggering the sensitive Article 16 clause of the withdrawal agreement.
This allows for the temporary suspension of parts of Northern Ireland's special post-Brexit arrangements designed to avoid a hard border on the island, if they are inadvertently causing serious problems.