Brussels remains “absolutely committed” to making the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol work, the European Commission’s vice president has said.
Maros Sefcovic made the comments as he arrived in London for talks with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
The protocol requires regulatory and customs checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but it has caused disruption to trade since it came into force on January 1, with various grace periods in operation.
Unionists in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned about the arrangements, insisting they have driven an economic wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
They have called on the UK to trigger a mechanism within the protocol – Article 16 – which enables the Government to unilaterally suspend aspects it deems are causing economic, societal or environmental problems.
🇪🇺🇬🇧 Arrived in London to meet @michaelgove on implementation of the Protocol on IE/NI👉the EU fully committed to protect peace in NI & make the Protocol work👉its implementation is a 2-way street👉a constructive solution-driven coop needed w/ the Joint Committee to meet asap.
— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) February 11, 2021
Mr Sefcovic, making a statement to reporters outside St Pancras station, said: “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 said implementation of the protocol is a “two-way street”, and he hopes a date can be set for a joint committee meeting.
He added: “It was always clear that the beginning of the implementation of the protocol could be challenging as a direct consequence of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and we are ready to look into these teething challenges while respecting the objectives of the protocol.”
His comments come after the DUP’s Westminster leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, criticised the European Commission after it called on the UK Government to take urgent action to fully and faithfully implement the protocol.
Mr Sefcovic was responding to a request from Mr Gove to extend grace periods that limit the bureaucracy associated with the protocol.
Sir Jeffrey said Mr Sefcovic’s call for fuller implementation of the protocol indicated the EU wants to increase the problems rather than find solutions.
“It is evident that the EU simply isn’t listening, that they don’t recognise the difficulties that the Northern Ireland Protocol is causing for our economy, for consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland who are unable to acquire the goods and products that they need from suppliers in Great Britain,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I’ve had businesses in my constituency who can’t get component parts for their manufacturing process. I have farmers and others who can’t get spare parts for tractors and for vehicles.
“I’ve got ordinary constituents who are unable to order goods online that were freely available to them before the 1st of January, and this is causing significant difficulty for both businesses and consumers and the EU simply doesn’t get it.
“The EU is insisting that we create an even bigger problem.”
Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard accused the DUP of over-hyping the trading problems.
“I think we need to get away from this idea that we’re in some sort of catastrophic trading situation; we’re not,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“Most businesses are coping, there’s absolutely undoubtedly some problems that need to be addressed, I think everybody’s acknowledged that.”
Mr Hazzard said the issues were an inevitable consequence of the insistence of the UK Government, and the DUP, on delivering a Brexit that severed links with EU regulatory and customs frameworks.
Mr Gove had asked that a series of grace periods which are due to expire at different points in the next 12 months be extended to January 2023.
In reply, Mr Sefcovic said there is an urgent need to “fully and faithfully” implement the protocol as a prerequisite before the UK’s requests for further facilitations are “necessary and justified”.