The European Union remains committed to a prosperous relationship with the United Kingdom, despite the deepening crisis over Britain’s plans to unilaterally rewrite the post-Brexit agreement, chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic has told Euronews.
“We are not seeking political victory in Northern Ireland,” the vice president of the European Commission told Shona Murray in the Global Conversation. “We just want these issues to be solved in a way that we can cement what I hope will be again, a good, prosperous relationship with the UK, with creating all these opportunities for Northern Ireland.”
But he also warned the British government that it risks damaging the Northern Irish economy if it allows the conflict to continue.
“I think that one of the clear consequences would be uncertainty,” he said. “I think if you talk to Northern Irish businesses, what you hear most often from them is please get to the table, find the joint solution, solve it. We need legal certainty. We need predictability for our businesses. Our investors are hesitating because they do not know if an eventual company they would invest in, in Northern Ireland, would be producing for five million, for 50 million or for 500 million”.
And he said trust in the UK had been “severely damaged” by Britain’s drafting of a bill aimed at removing previously-agreed customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from England.
Shona Murray, Euronews Brussels correspondent: Well, despite six years of difficult and often painstaking negotiations, Brexit is still as acrimonious as ever. We’re now said to be in historically new low relations between the EU and the UK following the British government’s decision to unilaterally breach part of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the peace that keeps Northern Ireland within the EU single market for goods, while leaving the EU with the rest of the UK. The solution was found to ensure all sides complied with the Good Friday Peace Agreement. But I’m joined now by vice president of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, who’s also the EU’s lead negotiator on Brexit. You’re welcome, vice president.
Maros Sefcovic: Thank you very much for the invitation.
Shona Murray: So, first of all, talk us through, I suppose, the threat to the single market – this decision the UK Government has had. What could it do to damage the single market essentially?
Maros Sefcovic: As you know, our relationship with the UK and especially the Protocol and withdrawal agreement and the TCA (Trade and Cooperation Agreement) is based on trust. And of course if you then draft a bill where you just want to control what is coming to our internal single market, and if on top of that you do not want to perform the necessary checks, this trust is severely damaged and undermined.
Shona Murray: But let’s say the single market, from what the British are proposing, is not dissimilar to what the EU has said: an express lane, the Green Lane, goods go and stay in Northern Ireland so that they would have fewer checks. But if there are no checks, what could happen, let’s say, to the EU’s single market, if you have some difficult crops unauthorised goods, some unauthorised animal products and so on, that find their way into the single market from Northern Ireland to the Republic, for example?
Maros Sefcovic: And if there are no controls, simply we might end up with goods which simply would be illegal, which would not be up to the standards from the point of view of public health or animal health, or simply it could be a lot of things like increased smuggling over the border.
Shona Murray: Now the UK side, of course, say they’re doing this out of necessity. You say that the UK hasn’t moved on discussions since February. So, which is it? Talk us through from your side the situation.
Maros Sefcovic: I have to say that since March of last year, we haven’t seen any constructive proposal from the UK side. We just saw new and new difficult issues being brought to the table. And I can also say that having spoken on a regular basis to Northern Irish business representatives, to political leaders, to civil society, that a lot of these things brought to the table by the UK Government have never been mentioned by the people of Northern Ireland. And therefore we’ve been very much focusing on the practicality of solving some of the unintended consequences, to make sure that we can operate the protocol in a smooth way, to lower to the maximum the necessary checks.
Shona Murray: You mentioned there are legal proceedings against the UK. Talk us through that. And also, ultimately if this bill gets through the House of Commons, which could take a year or so, does that mean that the EU will freeze the TCA, the free trade agreement between the EU and the UK?
Maros Sefcovic: The first very important statement is that this bill, this draft bill, first and foremost, we consider very clearly, it’s illegal. It’s against international law. We do not see this as serious or fair, because of some of the things that I already mentioned: like the UK deciding what kind of goods would come to the EU, preventing us from any effective control over this flow of goods. So, what we are going to do from our side? First and foremost, as I said, is to protect the single market by today’s legal action, but we will be very firm, calm, but at the same time proportionate in our response. And also, our next steps would be gradual because we still want to keep the doors for negotiation open. But of course, if this bill is approved as it is, I cannot exclude anything, and all the options have to be on the table.
Shona Murray: You mentioned keeping the door open. Are Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, or Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, reliable partners to actually get this issue resolved, do you believe?
Maros Sefcovic: I said at the beginning that our relationship, especially if you’re coming with such delicate agreements, like the withdrawal agreement, the TCA and especially the protocol, is very much based on trust. And I have to say that by this the draft bill introduced after 18 months of discussion, that this trust is severely damaged.
Shona Murray: What could the implications be then for Northern Ireland if this isn’t resolved? Do they lose access to the EU single market and also what about the fragility of the peace agreement there?
Maros Sefcovic: I think that one of the clear consequences would be the uncertainty. I think if you talk to Northern Irish businesses, what you hear most often from them is please get to the table, find the joint solution, solve it. We need legal certainty. We need predictability for our businesses. Our investors are hesitating because they do not know if an eventual company they would invest in, in Northern Ireland, would be producing for five million, for 50 million or for 500 million. According to the economic figures over the last year, I think Northern Ireland was developing quite well compared to other regions in the EU. And if it comes to peace for us, this was a primordial priority from the beginning. As you know, we’ve been as the EU, as a peaceful project, supporting the Good Friday Agreement from day one. We’ve always been supporting it financially, politically and economically. I saw some of the projects like Flurry Bridge, Shankill Road Centre sponsored projects, and I saw the kind of change and transformation that was achieved over the last few years. And I think we should cherish it, we should treasure it, and we should create a conducive environment for peace to be stable.
Shona Murray: Vice President, do you believe, then, this action by the UK is for the greater good, in their opinion, for Northern Ireland, or perhaps for the domestic political situation in the UK?
Maros Sefcovic: I think it’s indeed very politically driven by London. And for us what is important in all these relationships and I said it a few times and I’m very happy to repeat it. We are not seeking political victory in Northern Ireland. We just want these issues to be solved in a way that we can cement what I hope will be again, a good, prosperous relationship with the UK, by creating all these opportunities for Northern Ireland. And of course for peace and support to the Good Friday Belfast Agreement in all its dimensions.