The European Union has ruled out renegotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol, the day after the Democratic Unionist Party threatened to collapse the Stomont executive unless the Brexit treaty was torn up.
Maros Sefcovic said he was “acutely aware” of unionist opposition to the protocol, which created a customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland to avoid a hard Irish border.
The European commission vice-president said in Belfast, “I will not mince my words. The Protocol is not the problem. On the contrary, it is the only solution we have.”
“Failing to apply it will not make problems disappear, but simply take away the tools to solve them,” he said 24 hours after DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s ultimatum.
He added, “A renegotiation of the Protocol – as the UK government is suggesting – would mean instability, uncertainty and unpredictability in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Sefcovic also called on Britain, and the DUP, to drop demands that the European Court of Justice be stripped of its role as the final arbiter of the interpretation of EU rules in the province.
“Doing this would effectively mean cutting Northern Ireland off from the EU’s Single Market and related opportunities,” warned the Slovak official before rebutting DUP claims that the protocol was harming the economy.
He said Northern Ireland’s unique dual access to the UK market and the Single Market made it a “powerful magnet for foreign investment, translated into jobs and growth.”
“This way you have jam on both sides of the bread,” he said.
He said the focus of UK-EU negotiations had to be on limiting the impact of the protocol on “everyday life” while maintaining Northern Ireland’s access to the Single Market.
He said, “We are seeking solutions that work for all, including those opposed to the Protocol […] I know it is possible for us to work together, if rhetoric on both sides is dialled down.”
Mr Sefcovic warned that it would never be possible to have trade between Britain and Northern Ireland that was as frictionless as it was before.
He said, “But I also need to be honest: while we will continue looking for solutions to minimise the effects of Brexit on your everyday lives, we will never be able to remove them entirely – such are the consequences of Brexit and of the choices of the UK Government.”
Sir Jeffrey had told Mr Sefcovic and Lord Frost on Thursday they had a matter of “weeks” to renegotiate the agreement, which requires Northern Ireland to continue applying many EU single market rules.
He also announced that his ministers would be “immediately” withdrawing from north-south meetings with Dublin because the protocol had eroded the province’s link with Britain.
On Friday, he said he made the threat to pull his ministers out of the Stormont executive because he feared EU-UK negotiations would be “dragged out” for years.
He told the BBC’s Nolan Show, “I have been reasonable, I have given people time to take the action that I feel is necessary to remove this Irish Sea border […] the harm that is being done to our economy every day is not sustainable.”
On Monday, he UK and EU agreed a standstill deal on the protocol to win space and time for negotiations over the treaty.
Various grace periods delaying new checks on, for example British chilled meats and parcels, were due to expire at the end of the September and risked re-ignited the “sausage war” with Brussels.
Mr Sefcovic urged the UK to fully implement the protocol, which could be subject to a vote in the province in four years time.
In a veiled rebuke to the UK, which has called for a “significant” overhaul of the treaty, he said the protocol was only agreed through difficult compromise.
“Everyone around the table understood what these compromises meant in practice. And the implementation of this agreement will continue to require compromise from both sides,” he said.
He added, “The spirit of compromise needs to be a mutual one, as our responsibility is also a shared one.”