The European Commission Vice President and Co-Chair of the Europe-UK Joint Committee, Maroš Šefčovič,  spoke to a meeting of the Irish Institute of International and European Affairs yesterday about the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol.  He spoke of the political risk and the efforts being made to reach a compromise between the EU and the UK on the implementation of the Protocol. He referred to the €5bn Brexit support from the EU, over €1bn of which was for Ireland.  He sees as “unprecedented” the fact that the EU had, under the Protocol, agreed to have the UK carry out border checks on its behalf.

The proper implementation of the Protocol was, he said, necessary to protect EU consumers and to pave the way for investment in Northern Ireland.  A failure to abide by it would not, he continued, make the problems go away.  While the EU were ready to do everything possible to solve the practical issues around implementation, this was without having a hard border and while maintaining peace and stability in Northern Ireland.  If this is rejected, he said, “we then have a problem” .

He welcomed the constructive engagement with Lord Frost saying their teams talk to each other “all the time”.   Far reaching proposals were being put forward by the EU, but the Vice President referred to threats still being made regardless.  Without a solution, political tension and business disadvantage will continue.  He is doing his best not to be distracted by political statements, which he accepted as part of politics, but spoke of the EU having other areas that they also need to put political energy into.  He referenced climate change, energy and security issues in particular.

It has taken 5 years to negotiate the protocol now in place and it was worked on line by line.  He has yet to hear the alternative which he says is not a hard border nor doing away with checks on goods.  Quoting the former Unionist politician and Northern Ireland First Minister Paisley, as referring to cows in Northern Ireland being Irish cows rather than Northern Ireland cows, he said public health and animal safety across the Irish border was a paramount issue which the EU is going to enormous lengths to provide practical solutions to.

He didn’t regard doing away with the role of the ECJ, which he referred to as a ‘late addition’, as being one of the solutions.  He spent two days recently in Northern Ireland speaking to a variety of stakeholders and this issue was only mentioned once. He sees access to the EU market by Northern Ireland as a huge advantage which requires ECJ oversight.

The EU will present a paper next week with compromise proposals which he hopes will prompt a solution by the end of 2021 or early 2022.