LONDON — After weeks of incendiary rhetoric, the EU and the U.K. have agreed to find solutions to the post-Brexit trade disruption within the limits of their divorce deal’s so-called Northern Ireland protocol.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič had a “frank but constructive discussion” with U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove at a meeting in London on Thursday evening, according to a joint statement.
The visit took place after weeks in which the EU-U.K. post-Brexit relationship has been strained by major disruptions to trade and threats of violence in Northern Ireland, as well as Brussels’ failed attempt to trigger an emergency override provision in the Northern Ireland protocol — a key part of the Brexit divorce deal — as part of its efforts to control coronavirus vaccine exports.
The row had escalated via written correspondence, with Gove warning the U.K. could use “all instruments at its disposal” if Brussels did not make concessions on Northern Ireland, and Šefčovič rejecting calls for tweaks to the protocol operations, at least until the U.K. complies fully with existing rules.
But at Thursday’s dinner meeting, while munching on steak and roast potatoes, the two officials agreed to reiterate their “full commitment” to the Good Friday peace agreement, which sought to end years of violence in Northern Ireland, and to the “proper implementation” of the protocol.
Discussions on potential solutions to the trade disruption in Northern Ireland will now “intensify” at the EU-U.K. Specialised Committee on the Protocol. This work would later be signed off by Gove and Šefčovič at the next meeting of the EU-U.K. Joint Committee, which should take place no later than February 24 in a spirit of “collaboration, responsibility and pragmatism,” the statement said.
The EU and U.K. will also “spare no effort” to implement measures agreed on December 17, described in the joint statement as “a foundation for our cooperation.” This commitment comes after Šefčovič previously complained border control posts at the ports of Belfast and Larne were not yet fully operational and that EU officials were still being denied real-time access to the U.K.’s IT systems, including the import clearance system.
The U.K. side was pleased Šefčovič agreed to meet Northern Irish business leaders next week and hear about their struggles with the protocol, amid fears the EU has failed to understand the risk that moderate unionists could turn against the deal.
A British official said they also discussed labor mobility, touching on reports of wider visa issues and the need to ensure the protocol and the Brexit trade and cooperation agreement reflected the demands of the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the U.K.
Šefčovič arrived in London on Thursday afternoon willing to dial down the tensions, and his British counterparts appreciated his pragmatism at the meeting. But the first face-to-face encounter between the two senior officials after consummating the EU-U.K. divorce was never going to be easy.
Gove had asked that a number of grace periods designed to stagger the introduction of bureaucracy associated with the protocol be extended to January 2023, rather than expiring at different dates this year. He also called for a new deal between the U.K. and Ireland on pet travel, “flexibilities” on the movement of seed potatoes and other plant products, and the mutual recognition of qualifications.
“It is disappointing that the [European] Commission has failed to acknowledge the shock and anger felt across the community in Northern Ireland from its decision to trigger Article 16 and the need to take urgent steps to restore confidence as a result,” the U.K. prime minister’s official spokesman said ahead of the meeting.
Shortly after crossing the Channel, Šefčovič called for “constructive solution-driven” cooperation. “The EU is absolutely committed to making the protocol work, and we see this as the only way to protect the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement protecting peace, stability and prosperity for the island of Ireland,” he told reporters outside London’s St Pancras train station.
Šefčovič added that the implementation of the protocol was always expected to be “challenging” at the beginning, but the EU is willing to look into the issues it has posed.
The ‘bigger beasts’ summoned
The London meeting took place against a backdrop of wider diplomatic discussions involving Ireland, France and Germany. An Irish official said this dialogue addressed what the Dublin government considers Europe’s “unnecessarily rigid” response to Britain’s struggles managing post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland.
Ireland’s minister for European affairs, Thomas Byrne, said he thanked his counterparts in Berlin and Paris for their governments’ previous “solidarity” in backing a Brexit trade deal that kept Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market. That arrangement means EU customs checks are required in Northern Ireland’s ports, not along its 499-kilometer border with the Republic of Ireland.
Byrne talked Wednesday night with France’s secretary of state for European affairs, Clément Beaune, and Thursday with Germany’s minister of state for Europe, Michael Roth.
The Irish official said both meetings focused on “the real difficulties” hauliers face when moving goods between Britain and both parts of Ireland, and the potential for greater difficulties in Northern Ireland if the EU doesn’t support streamlined border checks.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin gave a series of interviews Thursday, urging what he called “the bigger beasts of Europe” to reduce unnecessary arguments with the U.K.
“Let’s move away from that. They need to cool it. We’ll be collateral damage in all of that,” Martin told the BBC.
Northern Ireland’s main British Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), is stoking tensions over the enforcement of EU customs checks. The party backed Brexit but opposes the protocol’s creation of a so-called Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
As part of a campaign against the protocol, Democratic Unionist politicians this week started to boycott meetings involving officials from the Republic of Ireland.
Such cross-border cooperation forms an important plank of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, but the DUP argues it won’t maintain “north-south” dialogue while the sea border disrupts “east-west” relations within the U.K.
Anna Isaac and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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