Comply with Northern Ireland protocol before expecting changes, EU tells UK | Brexit

Source: www.theguardian.com

The European commission has ruled out major changes to the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol, saying it would not even consider any flexibility unless the UK first meets its obligations under the pact in full.

Hours before a major meeting in London on Thursday to resolve problems in the region, the commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, said in a letter to Michael Gove that the protocol was “the only way” to protect the Good Friday agreement.

He said it was “the solution agreed by the UK and the EU to the significant challenges” posed for the island of Ireland by Brexit, “designed to ensure clarity and predictability for people and businesses while minimising disruption”.

The agreement represented “a balanced outcome” and was “a mutually agreed legal obligation”, Šefčovič said – but he warned that it required “full and faithful implementation” and listed several areas in which he said the UK was not complying.

Boris Johnson last week accused the EU of appearing to “cast doubt” on the Good Friday agreement following the bloc’s short-lived decision to invoke article 16 of the protocol as part of an attempt to block Covid vaccines getting into the UK.

The UK has asked for a two-year transition period on core elements to the protocol, including checks on supermarket food supplies from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and demanded a “permanent solution” on chilled meats from GB.

In a strongly worded letter this month, Gove also sought an extension of temporary arrangements and a “light touch solution” for parcel post, so consumers could continue to buy online from British stores, plus a common travel area for pets.

The Cabinet Office minister insisted that the UK wanted “urgent resolution” of the problems, and that lengthy technical discussions would not be acceptable. “What is required is political, not technical solutions,” he said.

But Šefčovič said in his reply that the UK’s full and urgent implementation of the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol was “a prerequisite to assess whether any other facilitation, as requested” was either necessary or justified, pointing to what he called “a number of current shortcomings”.

He said border control posts at ports in Northern Ireland were “not yet fully operational”, while official controls were “currently not being performed in compliance with the withdrawal agreement protocol and EU rules”.

There were “very few identity checks” on goods and “a very limited number of physical checks other than on live animals, fish and plants”, he said, while all “non-compliant consignments” were being accepted, even if destined for Ireland.

Packages were not being monitored as required by the 17 December agreement, he said, goods were entering Northern Ireland “without being declared or without valid certificates”, and the UK had “not yet fulfilled its obligation” to allow EU inspectors real-time access to key UK customs IT systems.

Šefčovič said he was “convinced that all of these are teething problems, for which we should be able to find swift solutions”, but insisted that “blanket derogations” from EU rules on meat products and parcels “cannot be agreed beyond what the protocol foresees already”.

A common travel area for pets and shipments of seed potatoes and other plant products from Britain to Northern Ireland would entail “the UK committing to align with the relevant EU rules”.

A UK government spokesperson said it was “disappointing” that the commission had “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 [Gove] will underline the need for such action and political leadership in this regard when meeting with vice-president Šefčovič in London tomorrow,” the spokesperson added.

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