Sefcovic walks fine line in search for Northern Ireland breakthrough

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Brussels thought high-level Brexit negotiation dinners were a thing of the past — but a lot to do with the first months of the EU’s new relationship with Britain did not pan out as hoped. 

EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic will meet his opposite number David Frost in Brussels this evening to take stock of progress in talks on how to apply the two sides’ Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, with both sides seeking to dial down tensions following the deeply disturbing scenes of violence in the region.

The first few months after the end of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period were widely expected to be rocky, but few on the EU-side imagined that at this stage the bloc would have ongoing legal proceedings against the UK government for violating the Northern Ireland protocol. Nor did they imagine that the European Parliament would have yet to ratify the two sides’ trade deal in protest at the British moves, or that ambassadors would be getting the cold shoulder because of a wrangle over protocol privileges. 

Most importantly, the EU had desperately hoped that Brexit would not feed the kind of tensions that erupted into violence in Northern Ireland this month — indeed it was an outcome it strove to avoid through the protocol, which is decried by Unionist politicians. For a vivid sense of the forces behind the rioting, look no further than Laura Noonan’s deeply reported piece for the FT on the role of criminal gangs and social media in stirring up tensions. 

That backdrop means the pressure on Sefcovic and Frost to come to some kind of understanding on how to apply the protocol is intense, but Brussels finds itself hemmed in. 

The European Commission is acutely aware of the risk that Brussels will be blamed for the upheaval and lost business brought about by putting a trade border down the Irish Sea. EU policymakers bemoan that Boris Johnson and his government were far too reluctant to publicly spell out what the realities of the protocol would be in terms of checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Christophe Hansen, lead MEP on Brexit in the European Parliament’s trade committee, told the FT on Wednesday that “the overall situation we are in is mainly due to the fact that the UK government has never owned up to the kind of Brexit they have signed up to”.

This is exemplified by Brussels’ repeated suggestion that the solution to many of the UK’s problems with the protocol would be to sign up to the bloc’s animal-health standards via a veterinary agreement, but Britain has rejected such “dynamic alignment” with EU rules. 

With such a step off the table for the time being, the European Commission knows full well that its wriggle room is extraordinarily limited, for instance when it comes to showing leniency on food safety requirements for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. France, for one, is always ready to remind Brussels that the protocol is there both to avoid a border on the island of Ireland and to protect the EU internal market from the illicit entry of goods. 

Brussels earlier this year also bitterly resented being blindsided by Johnson in his decision to extend grace periods unilaterally for bureaucratic requirements under the protocol, with such moves leaving the bloc with no political alternative than to launch legal action to uphold the deal. 

The mantra from EU officials in recent days has been that what is needed are “pragmatic” solutions that nonetheless ensure that the protocol, with its system of customs and animal health checks to protect the single market, is applied in full. UK Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has preferred to speak of a “fluid and flexible” approach to applying the trading arrangements. 

As Sefcovic and Frost settle down to dinner, they will be aware of the pile of work that remains to be done, talks on how to deal with food safety bureaucracy, for example, are still at an early stage. But officials on both sides have hailed the positive energy of recent days in the “technical” discussions on how to apply the protocol. Frost is also meeting on Thursday with Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, who is in London for high-level meetings.

At the end of the day, both sides have huge incentives — and little alternative — for making the protocol work. The other route of a hard border on the island of Ireland, violence, trade chaos and a broken relationship is unthinkable. 

“What we hear is the overall temperature of these [EU-UK] talks is quite good,” said Hansen. 

“Although the UK is not a member of the EU any more, this is a different form of living together, we are partners,” Hansen said. “I don’t see the EU blocking anything unnecessarily if there is explanation and arguments.” 

Brexit in numbers

The latest numbers from France suggest that EU trade with the UK may be recovering after nosediving in January. Eurostat is set to publish pan-EU figures at the end of this week. 

It is worth remembering just how sharply trade between the two sides fell at the start of this year. According to Eurostat data, EU exports to the UK were down 27 per cent in January compared with the same month in 2020, while imports were down a whopping 59.5 per cent, declines far heavier than seen with other major trading partners, although inventory stockpiling will have contributed to them. 

The FT’s Alice Kantor reported this week on transit snarl-ups and other non-tariff barriers already hitting French companies seeking to do business on the UK market ranging from wine sellers to machinery manufacturers. But extra challenges will be on the way as Britain gradually rolls out full customs checks on food and agricultural products. 

One boon for business would be confirmation that the EU-UK trade deal negotiated last year is bedding down permanently. There is good news on that front, with European Parliament committees set to endorse the text today. 

A full ratification vote by the assembly is yet to be scheduled pending a review of the outcome of the Frost/Sefcovic dinner, MEPs have underlined that a clear UK commitment to applying the protocol is a prerequisite for ratification, but Hansen said he hoped the vote could soon take place.

“Ratification increases legal security for businesses and that is exactly what our businesses need in this particular circumstance [of the pandemic]” he said. 

In any case, failure by the parliament to ratify this month would force the EU to seek a further extension from the UK government of the provisional application of the deal, a diplomatically awkward proposition that everyone is keen to avoid. 

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