Attempt to trigger Article 16 was ‘mistake’, says EU vice president

EU accuses Britain of failing to live up to Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland border

Commission vice-president blames threat to invoke emergency measures on ‘administrative mistake’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 16 February 2021 22:25

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has accused the UK of failing to live up to “very clear obligations” which Boris Johnson signed up to under the Northern Ireland protocol to his Brexit deal.

Giving evidence to the Irish parliament, Mr Sefcovic identified numerous “shortcomings” in the UK’s observation of the deal, complaining that controls at border posts are not being performed and EU officials are not being granted access to data on imports in line with the agreement.

But he brushed aside suggestions that the protocol and its customs border in the Irish Sea could be scrapped, insisting that Brussels regards it as the solution for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Asked about weekend reports that Michael Gove was considering a “mutual enforcement” plan which might restore a land border policed by the EU and UK, he noted that the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had “reiterated his full support” for the existing arrangement when they met in London last week.

Mr Sefcovic offered an apology for the Commission’s 29 January threat to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to stop Northern Ireland being used as a back door for coronavirus vaccine exports to the UK.

He blamed an “administrative mistake” for the emergency move, which he said was made at a time when the Commission was coming under intense pressure over the shortage of vaccines for EU nationals but was reversed within hours.

A new “clearing house” system is being introduced to prevent similar errors in future, he said.

But he was blasted by Irish parliamentarians for what one said was a “rookie mistake”. Senator Vincent Martin said that it was only thanks to rapid intervention from Dublin that “the Titanic didn’t hit the iceberg”.

Mr Sefcovic said that the Commission “deeply regrets” how it handled the issue.

But he told the Irish parliament’s European Affairs Committee: “In the end, in a matter of three hours we got it right. Article 16 was never activated and I can reassure you that the Commission has learned the lesson, and the Commission will do its utmost to protect peace in Northern Ireland, as it has done throughout the entire Brexit process.”

Mr Sefcovic said that Brussels foresaw problems with supplies of items like fresh food and chilled meat to Northern Irish supermarkets under the new arrangements, and offered the UK a transition extension to prepare. But he said that London responded that, with a grace period of a few months before full implementation, “we will be ready”. Mr Gove is now seeking the extension of the grace period to January 2023.

The Commission vice-president said that it had been clear all along that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU single market and customs union was “a massive operation” and it was “not possible to prevent all the disruption”.

But he said that the EU’s commitment to the protocol was “unwavering”.

And he added: “We also have to understand that the implementation of the protocol is a shared responsibility. It must be always a two-way street.”

He said he had pointed out “shortcomings” in the UK’s application of the agreement to Mr Gove last week.

The use of border control posts (BCPs) at entry ports to Northern Ireland was “very important for the protection of the integrity of the single market”, but the posts were “not yet fully operational” and official checks were “currently not performed in compliance with the withdrawal agreement protocol”, he said.

“We still see very few identity checks, a very limited number of physical checks, other than on live animals, live fish and plants. Furthermore, I also have to say that we agreed on, for example, certain packaging labels. And that again is not done as we agreed upon, including the UK declarations about health certificates and so on and so forth.”

He said that a smooth customs operation would require “proper, fully operational BCPs” as well as EU officials being granted access to IT systems “as we agreed and as the UK unilaterally declared in December that they will do”.

But he told the committee: “We still do not have that access to the real-time operations in the IT systems.”

Lack of access to data was making it impossible for the EU to assess whether the trusted trader scheme and simplified health certificates requested by the UK were being “properly used”, he said.

“I can go on and on, with the parcels and mail and so on and so forth,” said Mr Sefcovic. “There are really a lot of things which we agreed we will do and we did our utmost on our side and now we need also the response from the UK authorities.”

Mr Sefcovic said that the post-Brexit relationship between the EU, UK, the Republic and Northern Ireland would need “day-to-day care” and “adaptations” to economic life on the island of Ireland, he said.

“The change is fundamental, the transition which needs to be done is massive, and a number of the issues which we have to find a solution for is enormous,” he said.

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