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EU mulls retaliation against UK as Northern Ireland Brexit row simmers

Published: in European News by .

There are still ‘substantial gaps’ in the implementation of the Brexit deal in the region, says European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.

LONDON — The EU urged the U.K. to address “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol as the two parties failed to reach common ground on post-Brexit checks in the region.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and U.K. Brexit minister David Frost met Wednesday in London to take stock of technical negotiations simplifying the way the protocol, a key part of the Brexit divorce deal, is working. The Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol avoided enforcement of the EU’s single market rules at the politically-sensitive border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in favor of checks at Northern Ireland’s ports.

But the two sides remain stuck on major areas including the extent of sanitary and agriculture quality checks at those ports, and the looming end of a grace period on the movement of chilled meat products.

Speaking at a post-meeting press conference in London, Šefčovič said: “Our patience is wearing really, really thin, so we need to assess all options at our disposal.” Those options include legal action and measures like tariffs or the suspension of the U.K.’s participation in certain EU programs, Šefčovič said. 

For its part, the U.K. accused Brussels of taking a “very purist interpretation of EU law” and failing to take account of sensitivies in Northern Ireland.

Šefčovič meanwhile stressed that the Commission is not considering any emergency scenario in which checks might have to be imposed on Irish goods entering the rest of the EU’s single market, after POLITICO reported EU and U.S. officials had discussed that idea in private because of the impasse.

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“What we are clearly focusing on here is how to make the protocol work, how to protect the integrity of the single market and of course how to make sure that Ireland as it is, was and will be part of the single market,” Šefčovič said. “So we are not considering any of these eventualities because we are focusing on how to make sure that the integrity of the single market is clearly upheld and the agreements which we signed are fully implemented.”

The Commission vice president said Ireland will continue to have the support of the rest of the EU. “We have always shown solidarity with Ireland and will continue to stand by Ireland which is the member state most affected by Brexit,” he said. “This is a matter between the EU and the U.K., not between the EU and Ireland.”

‘Swiftly, firmly’

Northern Ireland has become a key post-Brexit flashpoint for the two sides.

Britain stoked anger in Brussels earlier this year when, amid ongoing disruption to trade, it unilaterally postponed to October a deadline to expand sanitary checks at Northern Ireland’s ports on retail goods that enter the territory from Great Britain but stay in Northern Ireland.

Šefčovič issued a stark warning to London against further solo moves. “If the U.K. were to take further unilateral action in the coming weeks the EU will not be shy in acting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure the U.K. abides by its international obligations,” he said.

The timing for any such retaliation remains unclear. Šefčovič said an ongoing case over the U.K.’s alleged breaches will reach the European Court of Justice in early fall. He said the EU is considering next steps under the arbitration procedure set out in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

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“I think that what we are demonstrating here is a very constructive approach and I would say enormous patience on the side of the European Union and all the member states and the institutions,” he said.


A senior U.K. government official close to the negotiations said unilateral action on Britain’s implementation of the protocol remains on the table, and warned Brussels against retaliating, pointing to a major row over vaccine exports earlier this year. “The EU has intervened once already in January in Northern Ireland and in a slightly unhelpful fashion. You’d think they would think hard before doing this sort of thing again,” the official said.

The U.K. official said the current operation of the protocol is “creating disruptions to everyday lives in Northern Ireland.” 

And they added: “We’re being asked to operate on the basis of very, very, very purist interpretation of EU law, which doesn’t reflect sensitivities and the balance of the protocol and the Good Friday Agreement.”

The two sides managed to make some progress on other issues linked to the protocol, including the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., where Šefčovič confirmed the EU is willing to change EU legislation to protect the flow of medicines. 

The EU and the U.K. also both reported progress on the movement of guide dogs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and VAT on second-hand vehicles. And Downing Street said Britain had provided plans for the EU’s access to Britain’s customs IT systems and databases.

The U.K. government pledged to continue to put forward “detailed proposals” to address the differences with Brussels. “There is an urgent need for further discussions in order to make real progress, particularly to avoid disruption to critical supplies such as medicines,” Downing Street said.

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Elsewhere, Šefčovič told the press conference he had obtained reassurances from Frost that “all outstanding issues” concerning the “very sensitive” topic of the detention of EU citizens at the U.K. border “will be solved swiftly.”

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