The EU’s Brexit negotiator has urged the UK to engage with Brussels over Northern Ireland, warning that tearing up their trade deal could damage peace and stability in the region.
Maros Šefčovič, European commission vice-president, was responding to UK threats that it would draw up legislation next week to disapply parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs post-Brexit trade on the island of Ireland.
In an interview with the FT, Šefčovič described the protocol as “a measure for peace”. “I don’t see how this [UK move] is promoting peace, stability and predictability for Northern Ireland and for the island of Ireland,” he said.
The UK government has received legal advice that it would be justified in overriding parts of the protocol in order to support the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the region.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party on Friday blocked the election of a new speaker at the region’s national assembly, effectively blocking the formation of an executive, until the protocol was scrapped.
Unionists say the deal undermines the region’s ties to the UK because it puts a trade border for goods in the Irish Sea.
Šefčovič declined to say how Brussels would respond to any unilateral UK move on the protocol but said it is “unacceptable for us” to change an international agreement that was less than two years old.
“I would say there is a united position of all EU member states and the [European] parliament,” he said.
An EU ambassador told the FT that Brussels would respond calmly “but firmly” to any unilateral action by London. “Constantly attacking the protocol is not just utterly unhelpful, but it’s also quite irresponsible and it’s playing with fire given the risk of polarisation inside Northern Ireland,” the ambassador said.
Diplomats said the EU was likely to wait for any UK legislation on the protocol to pass through parliament before responding. But measures it could take include scrapping the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which would introduce tariffs on UK exports to the single market.
However, diplomats pointed out that in the meantime Brussels could reactivate legal action against London for failing to implement full border checks in Northern Ireland. It paused the process in July 2021 to bolster the negotiating process.
Šefčovič said Northern Ireland had a “unique opportunity” to grow its economy as a member of both the UK and EU markets, and added that the region’s business community supported the current arrangements. However, he cautioned that uncertainty over the protocol was holding back investment.
“There are a lot of new investment opportunities, which are on the shelf . . . because these big investors from the US, Canada, Europe . . . are waiting to see how this would pan out,” he said.
Šefčovič said that if the UK decided to override the protocol, Brussels would have to impose customs and animal health checks on goods, but did not say how or where these checks would take place.
“We, of course, are responsible for the integrity of the whole single market. And I think it’s quite clear that it would be unacceptable to have an unguarded backdoor to the single market,” he said.
Dublin fears unilateral action by the UK could cause disruption to its own trade with the EU. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, warned in a BBC interview on Friday that Ireland’s economy could become “collateral damage”.
Šefčovič acknowledged that the protocol has affected intra-UK trade and has proposed fewer controls on freight from Great Britain that is destined for Northern Ireland. “If we work together, we know how to reduce the checks by 80 per cent and we are proposing express lanes. The same for customs procedures, cutting them at least by half.”
However, Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, maintains there should be no controls at all on British freight destined for Northern Ireland.
Šefčovič said he could only discuss such changes if the UK implemented the measures it had already agreed, such as allowing EU officials to access real-time, complete customs data.
“This is really a tiny little effort the UK has to do to make sure that this system works,” he said. “There is a basic pre-requisite [for concessions] that we have also to feel that the UK is ready to meet us halfway . . . that we would get access to the IT system, that they accept the fact that there has to be some minimal checks.”
He added: “I want this to end well for EU-UK relations because I think we just really need to close this chapter and build a new one.”