Brussels warns of souring relations with UK over Northern Ireland

Britain’s relations with the EU risk growing increasingly fractious as frustrations mount over the UK’s refusal to fully implement its post-Brexit obligations in Northern Ireland, a top Brussels official has warned. 

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s point person on relations with the UK, said he wants the two sides to agree a joint “road map” in early June that would provide a clear timetable for resolving problems linked to the roll out of new trading arrangements for the region. 

While the EU is showing “creativity and pragmatism” in discussions, the same cannot be said of the UK, the bloc’s Brexit commissioner told the Financial Times, revealing he had warned his British counterpart David Frost of rising impatience from EU member states.

“To be quite honest all these solutions are coming from our side,” Sefcovic said. “It’s quite clear that, if we do not see positive developments, that the atmosphere would be more sour, [making it] more difficult to look for political compromises. The political environment would be much more challenging.”

Crunch meeting

Sefcovic pinpointed a proposed meeting of the EU-UK joint committee on Brexit in the week of June 7 as the moment to agree a “joint approach” for settling differences over the operation of the Northern Ireland trade border. Work on such a plan by EU-UK officials has been under way since April.

Both sides are worried about an escalation of tensions in Northern Ireland ahead of the so-called marching season, when the region’s Protestant Orange Order holds traditional parades. The Northern Ireland protocol in Britain’s 2019 EU withdrawal treaty created a UK-administered trade and veterinary border in the Irish Sea to avoid the need for any north-south checks on the island of Ireland. But this has proved highly controversial in the region’s Unionist community, contributing to a wave of rioting in April. 

Sefcovic said the EU was working hard to resolve protocol-related irritants that have emerged since the new EU-UK trade deal came into force on January 1 — ranging from barriers to the movement of guide dogs between Northern Ireland and Great Britain to issues around tariffs on steel, VAT on second-hand cars, and a more generalised problem concerning food-safety checks.

Yet “from the UK side we still do not have the basic answers”, Sefcovic said, pointing to EU requests for real-time access to IT systems for monitoring trade, as well as to the need for clear UK plans for rolling out and staffing border checkpoints for goods.

‘Increased impatience’ with UK

He warned Frost in a call last week that there was “increased impatience in the EU [to see] the solutions the UK now will bring to the table” for meeting its obligations under the protocol.

In contrast, the UK thinks the EU is being inflexible over the need for checks on products travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

“The EU continues to treat the regulatory boundary in the Irish Sea as if it were like any other external EU border, even though there is very limited risk to the single market,” a UK government spokesperson said.

“This is resulting in reduced availability and choice on supermarket shelves, cancelled deliveries, retailers pulling products, and interference with the movements of pets and parcels. Such sustained disruption is undermining the protocol as a whole,” the spokesperson added.

Sefcovic said the EU needed to ensure the “integrity” of its single market by making sure products went through proper scrutiny, but he reiterated an offer for the UK to have a Swiss-style veterinary agreement that would eliminate the need for food safety controls — a step Britain rejects as it would imply ongoing alignment with EU rules. Adding that Brussels was working hard to find practical solutions to trade irritants, he said: “Honestly, I don’t know what more we could do.”

Next month’s crucial meeting of the joint committee is likely to take place back-to-back with another EU-UK meeting focused on trade and shortly before Joe Biden is due to touch down in the UK for a G7 summit. There has been speculation in EU capitals that the US president’s visit to Europe will provide him with the opportunity to push for progress on Northern Ireland trading arrangements. 

Legal threat

Sefcovic said Britain needed to realise that Brussels was also a “political space”, and that he could not be left in a situation of telling EU governments “look, here are the 10 things I solved for the UK”, only to reply “zero, nothing”, when capitals asked him what he got in return.

Brussels also has ongoing legal action against the UK after it unilaterally extended some grace periods from normal requirements for businesses moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Sefcovic said Britain’s written response to Brussels’ complaints had been “disappointing” and that the EU may be left with no choice but to escalate the dispute if “we would not hear anything more constructive at the joint committee” meeting in June. 

That would mean moving to the final procedural step before hauling Britain before the European Court of Justice.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen chose Sefcovic, who has been Slovakia’s EU commissioner since 2009, to lead Brussels’ work on implementing agreements with the UK following the departure this year of chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

It is a pressured job, as EU capitals grow increasingly irritated that parts of the new relationship are not bedding down. That includes not only Northern Ireland but also fishing rights and work permits for central and eastern Europeans. 

Sefcovic said there had been anger in the EU after it emerged that some EU citizens were being held in immigration detention centres after arriving in the UK without visas. “You can imagine how my phone is ringing, how many letters I am getting,” he said, adding that there had since been productive contact with the UK Home Office.

Sefcovic said he had expected by now to have been working with London on a positive agenda to make sure Northern Ireland capitalises on its unique status of being both within the EU single market for goods and part of the UK market.

The protocol “should be transformed into a great opportunity for Northern Ireland”, he said.

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