Northern Irish firms will almost certainly lose access to the EU single market if Boris Johnson’s bill to break much of the Northern Ireland Protocol becomes law, EU Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.
In a lengthy interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the former diplomat spoke with restraint and sidestepped many of the thorny issues, but made it clear that a key economic benefit of the protocol could be lost if Boris Johnson does not back down.
The interview was requested by Mr. Šefčović. He was also the one who, unlike most politicians, suggested that it be a long 45 minutes, a sign that the EU belatedly realized that it needed to do more to get its position straight to the people of Northern Ireland.
Asked if the Prime Minister’s bill to remove most of the protocol could result in local firms losing access to the single market, Mr Šefčović initially said: “I wouldn’t go that far and speculate at this stage but I have to say one thing. As you have probably seen, we are reacting very proportionately, very carefully, because we want to keep the doors open, we want to negotiate, we want to find a joint solution.
“If the bill is adopted in the form in which it was developed, of course, nothing is ruled out. All options are on the table.
However, in later interviews, Mr. Šefčović was more outspoken. When asked about the possibility of the EU accepting the European Court of Justice’s (EC) exception to the protocol, he said: “The European Court of Justice must rule on European law and single market rules.
“This is the sole jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in relation to Northern Ireland. What I can tell you with 100% certainty is that I cannot imagine Northern Ireland’s access to the single market without considering the fact that the European Court of Justice is the final arbiter in deciding how EU law and single market rules apply. market”.
Representing the European Court as a protector of the rights of Northern Ireland businesses, he referred to the work of the European Commission last year to ensure that European ports have full access to Northern Ireland goods, adding: “If we were not successful and if the Northern Irish businessman needed protection, his rights respected in the single market, there is no arbitration that could solve the problem – there is only the European Court of Justice.”
He said the European Court of Justice “will always protect the rights of businessmen from Northern Ireland”. [who] will place their goods on the single European market.
Asked if it would be possible to gain access to the single market without the European Court of Justice, Mr Šefčović stressed that “it is not us who are proposing this measure and putting Northern Ireland’s access to the single market at risk”.
Mr Šefčović said he “never heard of this as a real concern from stakeholders in Northern Ireland”.
However, a Queen’s University poll shows that 45% of people are concerned about the role of the European Court of Justice, a figure that correlates almost exactly with total union votes.
Earlier this week, the Irish newspaper Independent reported that the EU had drawn up a list of goods that would be subject to tariffs in the trade war if the Johnson Act came into force.
Quoting unnamed Brussels officials, the newspaper said items such as Scotch whiskey and the transport of automotive components to and from England’s Midlands and north would be targeted in an attempt to hurt Mr Johnson in areas where his party has made gains in the general election. 2019. elections.
When asked about this, Mr. Šefčović emphatically did not deny that such a course was being considered. He said: “I wouldn’t talk about any kind of response because you know we’re not in the business of threatening everyone.
“But the reality is that the bill as presented was so unacceptable that of course, if it is approved as it is, we cannot rule out any action.”
Mr Šefčović said that Michael Gove, then the government minister in charge of the protocol, asked for “certain transitional periods” in 2020 before the protocol came into force.
Mr. Šefčović’s reference that the decision was about “transitional” points, comparable to what other EU representatives said, was their clear understanding at the time: the government recognized the full border of the Irish Sea, but local businesses would be given a period to either get used to the new red tape or to finding alternative suppliers within the EU.
Mr Šefčović said: “We discussed how long [was needed] for the implementation of any measure. We agreed on how to move forward.”
Last year, the government introduced unilateral grace periods, which meant huge parts of the protocol didn’t apply – everything from British plants and chilled meats, which would be banned under the protocol, to delays in new rules that weren’t implemented.
Several high-profile business figures have stated that these grace periods are the only reason the protocol can still work, and they have become popular even among the many businesses that support the protocol.
However, this week Brussels reopened its legal action against the UK over the grace periods in an attempt to force them to end.
When asked if he wanted the grace periods to end, Mr Šefčović did not say so directly, but called them “illegal” and said the UK EU proposal would be better for business than the grace periods.
Mr. Šefčović denied controversy on the part of the EU, which promised to get rid of many bureaucracies when going to court to restore the bureaucracy. He said he had been asking EU members to agree that the lawsuit should be “put in the freezer” during grace periods to try to negotiate a solution, but now he’s faced with “super-one-sided action” and forced to act. .
The EU has now largely removed drugs from the protocol – something that Mr. Šefčović personally managed.
When asked if it was a mistake to ever include medicines in the protocol and provide for a border for medicines along the Irish Sea, he tried to share the blame with Mr Johnson, saying that they did not include anything in the document that was not agreed with the government, and that it is important to protect public health.
Dermot Johnson, managing director of Johnson’s Coffee in Lisburn, spoke about the extent of the bureaucracy he faces.
The pro-European businessman, who voted “Remain” in the referendum and supports the protocol, said he recently tried to order 28 cases of crisps, but an English manufacturer refused to sell them to him because the beef flavoring contained the product. of animal origin, which means that the supplier would have to hire a veterinarian to complete the export health certificate as well as customs clearance.
Asked if this is really necessary to protect the EU single market, Mr Šefčović said: “I think it is important to say that for all these issues we have technical solutions, but to solve such a complex problem you need not only technical solutions, which we constantly bring up for discussion, you also need political will.
“There is no political will to jointly seek technical solutions when I’m talking about the government in London.”
Mr. Šefčović disagreed that the fact that the EU is now saying it is ready to forego numerous protocol bureaucratic procedures means that there was never a need to defend its single market in the first place.
He said the protocol was “considered the best possible”. [deal]” at that time.
“We felt ‘this is what the UK government wants, this is what we need’,” he said, stressing that this is the first time the EU has handed over control of its border to a non-EU country.
He accused the UK of “wasting a year” for not having serious talks with the EU – which the UK says would be pointless as Mr Šefčović’s mandate from Member States prevents him from changing protocol.
The EU Vice President said: “I thought by now we would be focusing on the opportunities, on the new investment coming into Northern Ireland.”
He said “many companies” from the EU, Canada and America have told him they would like to invest in Northern Ireland “because it’s a unique place in the world – they really have the best of both worlds” but they need confidence before accepting final decision.