A compromise deal can be struck on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol that would represent a “win-win” for both the EU and UK, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has suggested.
Concluding a two-day fact-finding mission to Northern Ireland, Mr Sefcovic called for a “mutual spirit of cooperation” in talks to resolve the stand-off over the post-Brexit trading arrangements for the Irish Sea.
Reflecting on his talks with Stormont politicians in Belfast, he told a press conference: “I told them, for me, I do not need any political victory here, I want to find a solution which would represent win-win – victory for all, first and foremost for the people of Northern Ireland.
“That’s the goal why I came here. That’s my attitude. That’s my approach.”
However, political tensions over the protocol continue to simmer, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson accusing Mr Sefcovic on Friday of dismissing unionist concerns.
The protocol, part of the post-Brexit agreement between the UK and the EU, has created a trade border in the Irish Sea.
It has proved to be deeply unpopular with unionists, who have repeatedly called for it to be scrapped because they believe it undermines their position in the UK.
On Thursday, before meeting with Mr Sefcovic, Sir Jeffrey delivered a speech in which he threatened to collapse powersharing at Stormont unless his demands on the protocol were met.
Mr Sefcovic was asked whether the DUP ultimatum would influence the timeline for talks between the UK and EU.
“For us in the EU, we wanted to have this problem solved already before the first of January of this year,” he said.
“So can we do this faster? Let’s go for it. I mean, we are ready for engagement, we will be working as we’ve been until now, constructively with our UK partners. Let’s see how far and how fast we can progress.”
The DUP also criticised Mr Sefcovic after he responded to the party’s threat to withdraw ministers from Stormont with an appeal for politicians to “dial down the rhetoric”.
The commission vice-president responded: “I think that appeal for calm, for dialogue, for constructive engagement cannot offend anybody. And I will just repeat my invitation for this constructive, calm discussion.”
Mr Sefcovic acknowledged there were difficulties with how the protocol was operating but he said that was not a reason to ditch the whole thing.
“We recognise, and that’s my purpose of the visit here, that some things have been proven more difficult than others,” he said.
“But I think that because of that we just shouldn’t, you know, scrap the whole thing, because I know how difficult it was to get here and therefore I’m ready to go the extra mile to save the progress, to build on the achievements, which took us five years to build.”
Mr Sefcovic said his visit to Northern Ireland had been “informative, inspiring and enriching”.
He said his main takeaway was the desire within the region for “stability and predictability”, particularly from the business community.
Mr Sefcovic said the proposals outlined in the UK Government’s Command Paper on the protocol would represent a “renegotiation” of the arrangements – something he said the EU would not countenance.
However, he insisted compromise between the EU and UK was possible and said solutions could be found in agreeing “flexibilities” in how the protocol operates.
Mr Sefcovic also said he was keen to find ways to facilitate more involvement and participation from Northern Ireland’s political, business and civic representatives in how the protocol is implemented.
In a speech at Queen’s University earlier on Friday, Mr Sefcovic said any attempt to renegotiate the protocol would cause “instability, uncertainty and unpredictability” in Northern Ireland.
A small number of loyalists held a protest outside the venue as he delivered the address.
The DUP leader responded to Mr Sefcovic’s speech by saying that the EU needed to move quickly to address the concerns of unionists.
Sir Jeffrey said: “The EU vice-president is of course entitled to his view and we understand that any solution that we need to find on addressing the enormous difficulties created by the protocol has to find a way of protecting the integrity of the EU single market.
“But I think it’s unfortunate that Mr Sefcovic would be so dismissive of the real and genuine concerns that there are out there and I think that the meeting that we had yesterday with him was much more constructive and what I had to say yesterday reflects the concerns of many people in Northern Ireland.
“It is not mere rhetoric, it is articulating the views and concerns of unionists.
“In the end, the agreement that we have, the political institutions that we have can only work if both unionists and nationalists support them so the EU needs to move, and quickly, to address the concerns of unionists.”