All options on the table if Parliament passes Prime Minister’s proposals, says chief negotiator Šefčovič
Northern Irish firms will almost certainly lose access to the EU single market if Boris Johnson’s legislation to tear up much of the Northern Ireland Protocol becomes law, EU vice president Maroš Šefčovič has said.
In a long interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the former diplomat spoke with restraint and sidestepped many sensitive issues but gave a clear indication that the protocol’s key economic benefit could be lost if Boris Johnson did not back down.
The interview was suggested by Mr Šefčovič. It was also he who, unlike most politicians, suggested that it should be a long 45 minutes — an indication that the EU has belatedly realised it needs to do more to explain its position directly to the people of Northern Ireland.
When asked if the Prime Minister’s Bill to undo much of the protocol could lead to local firms losing access to the single market, Mr Šefčovič initially said: “I wouldn’t go that far and I wouldn’t speculate at this stage, but I have to say one thing. As you probably have seen, we are very proportionate in our response, very measured, because we want to keep the doors open, we want to negotiate, we want to find a joint solution.
“If the Bill is approved as drafted, of course, nothing is excluded. All options are on the table.”
However, later in the interview, Mr Šefčovič was more explicit. When asked about the possibility that the EU would accept the removal of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from the protocol, he said: “The European Court of Justice is there to rule on the European law and the rules of the single market.
“That’s the only remit the European Court of Justice has vis-a-vis Northern Ireland. What I can tell you with 100% certainty is that I cannot imagine that there will be access for Northern Ireland to the single market without respecting the fact that the European Court of Justice is the ultimate arbiter on adopting the rulings on how the EU law and single market rules are applied.”
Presenting the ECJ as a protector of the rights of Northern Ireland businesses, he referred to work by the European Commission last year to ensure European ports gave full access to Northern Irish goods, adding: “If we hadn’t been successful and if the Northern Irish businessman needed protection for their rights to be respected in the single market, there is no arbitration which can solve the problem — it’s only the European Court of Justice”.
He said that the ECJ “will always rule to protect the rights of the businesspeople coming from Northern Ireland [who] would be placing their goods on the European single market”.
When asked if it was just possible to have access to the single market without the ECJ, Mr Šefčovič stressed, “it’s not us proposing this measure and putting the access of Northern Ireland to the single market under risk”.
Mr Šefčovič said that he had “never heard this as a real concern coming from Northern Ireland stakeholders”.
However, polling for Queen’s University shows that 45% of people are concerned at the ECJ’s role — a figure which almost exactly correlates with the total unionist vote.
Earlier this week, the Irish Independent reported that the EU had drawn up a hit list of goods which would be subject to tariffs in a trade war if Mr Johnson’s legislation passes into law.
Quoting unnamed Brussels officials, the paper said that items such as Scotch whisky and the transport of car components in and out of the English Midlands and north would be chosen in a attempt to hurt Mr Johnson in areas where his party made gains in the 2019 general election.
When asked about that, Mr Šefčovič pointedly did not deny that such a course was being considered. He said: “I wouldn’t speculate about any retaliatory measures because you know that we are not in the business of threatening everyone.
“But the reality is that the draft bill as it was presented was so unacceptable that of course, if it is approved as it is, we cannot exclude any action.”
Mr Šefčovič said that Michael Gove — then the government’s minister dealing with the protocol — had in 2020 requested “certain transition periods” before the protocol came into force.
Mr Šefčovič’s reference to that decision being about ‘transition’ points compares to what other EU figures have said was their clear understanding at the time: that the government accepted the full Irish Sea border, but a period would be allowed for local businesses to either get used to the new red tape or to find alternative suppliers within the EU.
Mr Šefčovič said: “We discussed how much time [was needed] for this or that measure to be implemented. We agreed upon how to take it further.”
Last year the Government put in place unilateral grace periods which meant that huge parts of the protocol were not applied — everything from British plants and chilled meats which would be banned under the protocol, to delays in new rules which had not been implemented.
Several senior business figures have said that those grace periods are the only reason why the protocol can still operate, and they have become popular, even with many businesses which support the protocol.
However, this week Brussels restarted its legal action against UK over the grace periods, attempting to force them to be brought to an end.
When asked if he wanted the grace periods to end, Mr Šefčovič did not say so directly, but described them as “illegal” and claimed the EU’s offer to the UK would be better for businesses than the grace periods.
Mr Šefčovič denied that it was contradictory for the EU to promise it would get rid of lots of the bureaucracy while going to court to reinstate bureaucracy. He said that he had asked EU members to agree that the legal action over the grace periods should be “put into the freezer” to try and negotiate a solution, but that it was now facing “super unilateral action” and was being forced to act.
The EU has now largely removed medicines from the protocol — something which Mr Šefčovič drove personally.
When asked if it was a mistake to ever put medicines into the protocol and envisage an Irish Sea medicines border, he sought to share the blame with Mr Johnson, saying that they had not put anything into the document which the government had not agreed and that it was important to protect public health.
Dermot Johnson, the managing director of Johnson’s Coffee in Lisburn, has spoken about the scale of bureaucracy he faces.
The pro-EU businessman, who voted Remain in the referendum and who supports the protocol, said that he had tried to order 28 cases of crisps recently, only for the English manufacturer to refused to sell them to him because the beef flavouring contained a product of animal origin, meaning that the supplier would have had to hire a vet to complete an export health certificate, as well as customs paperwork.
When asked whether that was really necessary to protect the EU’s Single Market, Mr Šefčovič said: “I think it is important to say that to all these issues we have technical solutions, but to solve such a comprehensive problem you need not only technical solutions, which we are permanently bringing to the table, You also need the political will.
“The political will to look for technical solutions jointly is not there, if I’m talking about the government in London.”
Mr Šefčovič did not accept that the fact the EU now says it is willing to dispense with swathes of the protocol bureaucracy means that it was never necessary in the first place to protect its single market.
He said that the protocol “was considered the best possible [deal]” at the time.
“We felt, ‘this is what the UK Government wants, this is what we need’,” he said, highlighting that for the first time the EU had outsourced control of its border to a country outside the EU.
He blamed the UK for having “wasted a year” through not seriously negotiating with the EU — something the UK says would be pointless because Mr Šefčovič’s mandate from member states does not allow him to alter the protocol.
The EU vice president said: “I thought that by now we would be focusing on the opportunities, on new investment coming to Northern Ireland.”
He said that “a lot of companies” from the EU, Canada and America had told him they would like to invest in Northern Ireland “because it’s a unique place in the world — they have really the best of two worlds” but that they needed certainty before finalising the decision.