Picture: 123RF/MARIAN VEJCIK
Picture: 123RF/MARIAN VEJCIK

Brussels — The EU has rebuffed the UK’s call to re-set the two sides’ relationship, saying Britain needs to honour the promises it made on Northern Ireland as part of the Brexit deal.

In a letter to UK cabinet office minister Michael Gove, European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič gave a cool response to Britain’s request to delay the implementation of border checks on some goods entering the province, saying that measures the UK previously signed up to “urgently need to be fully and faithfully implemented”.

The letter, published ahead of a meeting between the two men in London on Thursday, is likely to inflame tensions between the two sides that escalated dramatically on January 29 when the commission briefly threatened to trigger an emergency clause in the Brexit divorce deal to curb vaccine exports to Northern Ireland.

Speaking to lawmakers on Tuesday, Gove said the part of the Brexit deal covering Northern Ireland isn’t working, and called for a re-set in the EU’s relationship with Britain.

Johnson concession

Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland effectively remained in the EU’s customs union and single market after Brexit — a concession Prime Minister Boris Johnson made to the bloc to secure Britain’s orderly departure.

With goods crossing the Irish Sea facing delays and disruption, Gove is seeking to postpone the introduction of full checks on food destined for supermarkets, medicines and parcels moving into the province from the rest of the UK until 2023.

But “blanket derogations” from EU law as set out in the deal “in respect of Northern Ireland cannot be agreed beyond what the protocol foresees already”, Šefčovič said in the letter.

He also said granting more flexibility around checks on seeds and pets crossing the border — two British demands — “would entail the UK committing to align with the relevant EU rules”.

Šefčovič also set out a list of what he called “shortcomings” in the British implementation of the deal, saying border control posts are still not fully operational and data-sharing isn’t in place.

The UK’s cabinet office criticised Šefčovič’s letter and called for urgent action to “restore confidence” in the Northern Ireland protocol.

“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,” the cabinet office said in a statement. Gove will underline the need for “political leadership” when he meets with Šefčovič on Thursday, the statement said.

‘Cool it’

The letter also drew a critical response from Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster, whose Democratic Unionist Party has long opposed the protocol. She said that Šefčovič has had his “head in the sand” and “fingers in his ears” over the problems affecting the region. “That’s an incredible state of affairs,” she told on ITV’s Peston show on Wednesday.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin called on EU member states to “cool it”, saying there were bound to be teething problems in early days of the protocol.

“Tensions are rising unnecessarily,” he told RTE Radio on Thursday. “Ultimately, we want the UK aligning well with the EU. We want harmonious sensible relationships.”

Separately, the European Commission said on Wednesday that it wants to delay the conclusion of the provisional application of the wider post-Brexit trade agreement from the end of February until April 30 to give time for governments and EU lawmakers to scrutinise the trade pact.

The European parliament has to vote on whether to approve the deal before the end of the provisional period. Officials on both sides said it’s highly unlikely lawmakers will seek to vote down the accord. Any delay, though, would still have to be approved by both the UK and EU.

“It’s a little surprising the EU wishes to change it quite so soon,” David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, said to a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday after being told informally by the EU that it wanted more time. Frost said he didn’t think there is “any wish” on the UK side “to extend this more than necessary”.

Bloomberg

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