The EU has rejected the UK government’s calls to redraw the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol, as a senior European Commission official said it was the only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
A letter from the European Commission’s vice-president, Marcos Sefcovic, inflamed tensions on the eve of his meeting with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove on Thursday in London, where they are due to discuss the problems faced in Northern Ireland as a result of the new trading arrangements.
Mr Sefcovic expressed concerns over “teething problems” over the implementation of the protocol in the letter to Mr Gove on Wednesday, but added that it was now “our mutually agreed legal obligation”.
The EU briefly triggered Article 16 during a row over Covid-19 vaccines, before quickly withdrawing. Unionists in Northern Ireland have since called for it to be ditched.
The protocol was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland but has resulted in additional checks for goods crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, which led to empty supermarket shelves and disruption at the border last month.
Article 16 overrides part of the protocol which prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland, and was intended as an emergency measure only.
Unionists regard the new checks as a border in the Irish Sea separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster urged Mr Gove and Boris Johnson to “act on” their unionist beliefs, adding that “it is important that they realise that part of the United Kingdom is being treated differently”.
She told ITV’s Peston: “And actually if you look at the protocol it talks about respecting the fact that the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom as one, it also talks about respecting the internal market of the United Kingdom.
“I don’t believe that the European Union is doing either of those things and so I believe it is up to our Government to challenge them on that and the fact that they are separating out Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
Mrs Foster described the issues with the protocol as “fundamental” and said: “You can’t even get a pot plant from Great Britain into Northern Ireland at the moment which is absolutely incredible.”
Mr Sefcovic’s letter was criticised by UUP leader Steve Aiken, who said it “reeks of arrogance and intransigence”.
He said the letter will to the opposite of “protecting the Belfast Agreement and defusing tensions”.
But Mr Sefcovic made it clear in his letter that the commission regards the protocol as the only way forward.
“The protocol is the solution agreed by the UK and the EU to these challenges: it is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, preserving peace and stability and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland,” he wrote.
“It is designed to ensure clarity and predictability for people and businesses, while minimising the disruption inevitably caused by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. It is a balanced outcome after years of difficult negotiations and is now our mutually agreed legal obligation.
“I therefore agree that our shared objective is to work tirelessly in order to make the protocol work. It requires full and faithful implementation by both parties.
“The Union’s commitment to the objectives of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, as a cornerstone of both the Withdrawal Agreement and the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, is unwavering.”
He also used the letter to set out concerns over the implementation of the protocol, writing that Border Control posts (BCPs) are not yet fully operational and official controls not performed in compliance with the Withdrawal Agreement protocol and EU rules.
Mr Sefcovic said the UK has “not yet fulfilled its obligation” to provide real-time access to all its IT systems, in particular access to key customs IT systems.
However, he wrote that he is convinced these are “teething problems, for which we should be able to find swift solutions”.
A UK government spokesperson said: “It is disappointing that the Commission has failed to acknowledge the shock and anger felt right across the community in Northern Ireland from its decision to trigger Article 16, and the need to take urgent steps to restore confidence as a result.
“The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will underline the need for such action and political leadership in this regard when meeting with Vice-President Sefcovic in London tomorrow.”