European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič came to London today for ‘clear the air’ talks with Cabinet minister Michael Gove over possible adjustments to the implementation of the NI Protocol.
On his arrival in London, Šefčovič said the EU remained “committed” to making the protocol work, despite UK pressure to revise the agreement.
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, despite various grace periods in operation.
Northern Ireland unionists have called on the UK to trigger a protocol mechanism called Article 16, which enables either party to the agreement to unilaterally suspend aspects it deems are causing economic, societal or environmental problems.
Talking to reporters outside St Pancras station, Šefčovič said the EU is “absolutely committed” to making the protocol work. “We see this as the only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement protecting peace, stability and prosperity for the island of Ireland.”
Implementation of the protocol is a “two-way street”, he said and voice hopes a date can be set for a joint committee meeting.
‘Brexit’s third act’
Gove and Šefčovič are meeting in what Politico has described as the commencement of ‘Brexit’s third act’ that will likely last for years.
Gove wants to extend the grace periods for introducing the requirements of the protocol, until January 2023. Changes to issues such as certification for products of animal origin are due to come into operation at the beginning of April, and border officials are already struggling.
Export Health Certificates (EHCs) required for these products need to be signed off by vets or other professionals.
The hopes are that the good personal relationship between Gove and Šefčovič will make for a less adversarial dialogue than existed between Michel Barnier and David Frost who hammered out the free trade deal last year.
“They get on well, but that doesn’t mean they inherently agree on a way through. [Šefčovič] is constructive and solution-orientated, but certainly not a pushover,” a Whitehall official said.
The meeting in London is not expected to end in a significant breakthrough but could change the mood. “It will be an important meeting in terms of the clearing of the air,” said one EU27 ambassador. “It won’t be a formal meeting of the joint committee, but more a frank discussion — where do we go from here?”
Šefčovič wrote to Gove this week, warning that the EU will not give much away in terms of the new customs rules in Northern Ireland and will instead urge the UK to address its “shortcomings” in the application of them, the FT reports.
He said the UK should first look to sort out “teething problems” with the protocol, including the establishment of fully operational border posts to carry out checks at Northern Irish ports, and failure to provide EU customs officials with real time access to key customs IT system.
Šefčovič dismissed demands for a relaxation of trade barriers in areas like pet passports, and food products and seeds travelling from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
Arlene Foster has said Šefčovič has “his head in the sand” and was ignoring problems faced by NI importers as a result of new trade barriers, reports the BBC.