Any attempt to renegotiate the post-Brexit agreement between the EU and the UK Government would cause “instability, uncertainty and unpredictability” in Northern Ireland, the European Commission vice-president has warned.
Delivering a keynote speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, Maros Sefcovic also said that the Northern Ireland Protocol must be “properly implemented”, but said this would require compromises on both sides.
He delivered his speech amid growing political tension over the protocol, after DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned that his party may quit Stormont if its demands are not met.
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.
Delivering his speech, Mr Sefcovic said the EU had been “engaging constructively” with the UK Government to limit the impact of the protocol on everyday life in Northern Ireland.
He added: “The EU and the UK must continue these discussions in order to reach an understanding.
“I believe that our focus should be on those issues that matter the most to the people of Northern Ireland, and not on requests, such as removing the role of the European Court of Justice.
“Doing this would effectively mean cutting Northern Ireland off the EU’s single market and related opportunities.
“Instead, let’s see what can be done to further ease the supply of goods.
“And let’s see how to involve the people of Northern Ireland in our discussions on the implementation of the protocol.
“A renegotiation of the protocol – as the UK Government is suggesting – would mean instability, uncertainty and unpredictability in Northern Ireland.
“Bear in mind it has already taken us five years to get to this point.”
Mr Sefcovic also pledged to do “whatever it takes” to ensure that the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland is not disrupted because of the protocol.
But he added: “I also need to be honest: while we will continue looking for solutions to minimise the effects of Brexit on your everyday lives, we will never be able to remove them entirely – such are the consequences of Brexit and of the choices of the UK Government.”
Mr Sefcovic continued: “The protocol is not the problem. On the contrary, it is the only solution we have. Failing to apply it will not make problems disappear, but simply take away the tools to solve them.
“I am, of course, acutely aware of how some in Northern Ireland feel about the protocol, in particular in the unionist community.
“We are seeking solutions that work for all, including those opposed to the protocol. Because no matter what your outlook is, we are all in this for the long run.
“I know it is possible for us to work together, if rhetoric on both sides is dialled down.”
He said that the protocol presented a “real opportunity” for Northern Ireland.
“The implementation of this agreement will continue to require compromise from both sides.
“All the exchanges here have only strengthened my conviction that enormous benefit can be extracted from its unparalleled access to two of the world’s largest markets with more than 500 million consumers – a powerful magnet for foreign investment, translated into jobs and growth.”
He added: “But if we are to turn this opportunity into reality, the protocol must be properly implemented.”
Meanwhile, Sir Jeffrey has said that the reason he threatened to pull his ministers out of the Stormont Executive was because he feared that negotiations with the EU could drag on for years after the UK Government announced an indefinite extension on grace periods for the movement of some goods.
He told the BBC Nolan Show: “I have been reasonable, I have given people time to take the action that I feel is necessary to remove this Irish Sea border.
“I have worked with the Government, I have engaged with the EU, I have put forward proposals and suggestions in terms of how we can address these issues.
“There reaches a point where, with the decision taken to extend the grace periods indefinitely, that it appears to me that this will be dragged out for months, if not years, and we simply can’t afford that.
“The harm that is being done to our economy every day is not sustainable.”