A senior European Commission figure has defended the Northern Ireland protocol, calling on the UK government to ditch ideology in favour of pragmatism in order to transform problems arising from the Brexit deal.
Maroš Šefčovič said he was looking at “solutions” to iron out disruption to businesses caused by the protocol, a key part of the Brexit agreement designed to protect the bloc’s single market at its frontier with the UK on the island of Ireland, without a return to a hard border.
It means Northern Ireland has in effect stayed within the EU’s single market for goods, and a customs border was enforced on goods crossing the Irish sea. The resulting checks at the ports of Belfast and Larne have angered unionists and loyalists, who feel the region is being separated from the rest of the UK, and this anger has escalated into threats, violence and rioting.
Edwin Poots, who earlier this month succeeded Arlene Foster as the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, claimed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday that the EU Commission “don’t seem to care for the peace process in Northern Ireland and that really needs to change”.
The DUP is calling for the protocol to be scrapped, and Poots told Marr the checks were “doing demonstrable harm to every individual in Northern Ireland” and “having a devastating impact”, agreeing the violence could get worse as summer and the perennially tense marching season approaches.
Šefčovič, who is in charge from Brussels’ side of leading talks with the UK’s Michael Gove and David Frost to adapt the protocol, later defended the arrangement, saying it presented “opportunity” and would take care of daily problems in Northern Ireland.
He said he was investigating how to address issues arising from the protocol, but insisted it would be wrong to scrap it completely.
In response to Poots’ accusation that Brussels was treating Northern Ireland as a “plaything”, Šefčovič said there was “plenty of opportunity” to transform the protocol into “something positive, good for the future which would guarantee the peace, stability and prosperity for all islands of Ireland”.
He promised to take soundings from the DUP and other political parties in Northern Ireland before his next meeting with Frost in London, expected to take place in several weeks.
Recalling his talks with Gove last December, when the post-Brexit trade deal was signed, Šefčovič said he had offered Swiss-style transition agreements on matters such as veterinary issues, which would prevent someone with guide dogs needing a certificate proving they were free of rabies to take the animals from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
He added he was ready to offer solutions to solve current problems, but added the UK “just need to get over, I would say, ideology into pragmatism and real politics and go for this type of veterinary agreement, which could be done just like this within a few weeks”.