LONDON — Northern Ireland would be plunged into “instability, uncertainty and unpredictability” if the agreement setting out its post-Brexit trade arrangements was renegotiated, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has warned.
During a two-day visit to the region, Šefčovič sought to calm political tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol, after the Democratic Unionists threatened to force a snap election by pulling out of the Northern Ireland Assembly if the deal isn’t scrapped.
Šefčovič told a press conference Friday that some aspects in the implementation of the protocol “have proven more difficult than others” but the deal should not be abandoned because of that.
He pledged to “go the extra mile” to save the progress drawn up during five years of negotiations for accommodating Northern Ireland in both the EU and the U.K. internal markets after Brexit.
“Failing to apply [the protocol] will not make problems disappear, but simply take away the tools to solve them,” he said. “We will therefore continue to engage tirelessly with the U.K. during September, but the spirit of compromise needs to be a mutual one as our responsibility is also a shared one.”
Hours earlier, in a speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, the Commission’s Brexit point man insisted Brussels is seeking “solutions that work for all” including those unionists who oppose the protocol, and said collaboration is possible “if rhetoric on both sides is dialed down.”
The Commission plans to put forward a fresh set of proposals to tackle the disruption of trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland by the end of this month at the earliest. Chief among them would be an overhaul of EU rules to ensure the long-term supply of medicines to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., Šefčovič said, promising to “do whatever it takes” to ensure the region has access to all the medicine it needs, without price increases.
Increasing the participation of Northern Ireland’s civil society and businesses in the delivery of the protocol’s arrangements will also be part of the package, he added. London must also take steps to facilitate the implementation of the protocol, including giving the EU access to its trading databases as agreed, the EU official said, warning that the removal of all friction will not be possible.
Šefčovič, who has met political and business leaders on the trip, ruled out the possibility of drastic changes to the protocol such as removing the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union in arbitrating disputes — one of the key demands of the U.K. government.
“A renegotiation of the protocol — as the U.K. is suggesting — would mean instability, uncertainty and unpredictability in Northern Ireland,” he said.
In response to the speech, Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who met the Commission’s vice-president Thursday in person for the first time, accused Šefčovič of being “dismissive” of the unionists’ warnings on the protocol.
“It is not mere rhetoric, it is articulating the views and concerns of unionists,” he told journalists.
Donaldson said his threat to withdraw DUP ministers from the Stormont Executive was an attempt to “focus minds” because negotiations on the protocol were dragging on and could last years after the U.K. announced an indefinite extension to grace periods for the movement of some goods, including chilled meats and parcels.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson described Šefčovič’s words as “belligerent” and took a swipe at the Commission’s plans for medicines supplies.
“It should not be for Brussels to decide what medicines the people of Northern Ireland can or cannot receive. When we consider the rollout of the [COVID-19] vaccine, I would rather depend on our current supply chain than some botched EU rerouting,” he said.
Downing Street said the U.K. remained committed to changes to the protocol to make sure it is “durable for the future.”
“Our focus is on talks continuing in order to determine whether we can make progress,” a spokesperson said. “We acknowledge that there are significant issues with the Northern Ireland protocol and that’s why we published the command paper earlier this year and why we continue to engage with the EU to secure changes we believe are needed.”
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said Northern Ireland politicians would need formally structured and regular consultations with the Commission as part of any new package to make the protocol work.
“We need access for Northern Ireland parties to EU decision-makers,” said Martin, referring to a chief unionist complaint about the protocol: It leaves Northern Ireland subject to EU trade laws even though the U.K. region’s politicians no longer have any say in shaping those laws.
But the prime minister said he was optimistic a solution could be found. “My sense is that there’s an opportunity and a window in the next month to try and resolve this,” he said. “Europe is certainly in solution mode.”