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Von der Leyen calls for unity to get Europe back on its feet

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The EU’s chief executive today (16 September) painted a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history, but laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises, write Foo Yun Chee and Robin Emmott. 

In her annual State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen doubled down on the flagship goals she set out on taking office last December: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. She unveiled a plan to cut the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, up from an existing target of 40%, and pledged to use green bonds to finance its climate goals.

“There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet,” the former German cabinet minister told the European Parliament. “While much of the world’s activity froze during lockdowns and shutdowns, the planet continued to get dangerously hotter.”

Von der Leyen also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States, and said the EU would invest 20% of a €750 billion economic recovery fund in digital projects.

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Officials said that, far from backing off the plans she laid out at the beginning of her term because of the coronavirus crisis, von der Leyen believes they will be key to Europe’s long-term economic and political survival. The EU has been buffeted for years by crises, from the financial meltdown of 2008 to feuds over migration and the protracted saga of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

Solidarity among the 27 member states frayed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries refused to share protective medical kit with those worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. The bloc’s leaders also jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies.

But in July they agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euro on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration.

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Von der Leyen told the EU assembly that “this is the moment for Europe” to trust each other and stand together. “The moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality,” she said. “I say this because in the last months we have rediscovered the value of what we hold in common ... We turned fear and division between Member States into confidence in our Union.”

Turning to the troubled talks with London on the future relationship between the world’s fifth-largest economy and biggest trading bloc, von der Leyen said every passing day reduces chances for sealing a new trade deal. She stressed that both the EU and Britain negotiated and ratified their Brexit divorce deal and warned the UK, which has proposed a bill that would breach elements of the pact, that it “cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied”.

“This is a matter of law, trust and good faith... Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership,” she said. She said EU states must be quicker in their foreign policy to support pro-democracy protests in Belarus or to stand up to Russia and Turkey. “Why are even simple statements on EU values delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives?” she asked. “When member states say Europe is too slow, I say to them be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting,” she said, referring to blockages over finding unanimity among the EU’s 27 states.

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Šefčovič says new tone from UK needs to lead to tangible solutions

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In a statement following today’s (19 November) meeting, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič reiterated the need “to shift into a result-oriented mode and to deliver on the issues raised by Northern Irish stakeholders”.

Šefčovič said that it was essential that the change of tone from the UK-side, which was welcomed last week, “now leads to joint tangible solutions in the framework of the Protocol”. He stressed that progress was needed and that it was a test of political goodwill on the UK-side. 

The Vice President said that there had been “initial useful engagement at a technical level” on customs, but “urge” the UK government to make a clear move towards the EU in the area of sanitary and phytosanitary controls to reciprocate the big move made by the EU. 

The UK’s minister Lord Frost said significant gaps remained and while failing to meet the EU’s efforts to materially ease practical problems, continued to threaten to trigger Article 16 of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol, “in order to meet its responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland.”

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Earlier in the day Šefčovič addressed Dublin City University's Brexit Institute, in his speech he said that the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the Northern Ireland Protocol, was a pre-condition for the Trade and Co-operation Agreement reached in 2020: "The two agreements are intrinsically linked – one cannot exist without the other."

With the exception of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), no significant Northern Irish political party is seeking the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly on this issue. The leader of the other major unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Doug Beattie has said that the issues linked to the protocol should be dealt with through negotiation.

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The European Commission's efforts have also been welcomed by the non-aligned Alliance Party and nationalist parties (Sinn Fein and the SDLP), yesterday MP's from the UK's Northern Ireland Select Committee met with MEPs on the European Parliament's EU-UK co-ordination group.

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Šefčovič welcomes change of tone from UK side

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After a further week of discussions, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič welcomed the change in tone from the UK side following his meeting with the UK’s minister with responsibility of relations with the EU, Lord Frost. 

Šefčovič said that next week a laser-like focus would be given to the question of medicines and the other practical issues that have been highlighted by Northern Irish stakeholders. 

He said: “My message has been clear and consistent – the European Union is committed to finding practical solutions for the people and stakeholders in Northern Ireland; our package is a direct response to concerns they raised and makes a tangible difference.”

Šefčovič says that the EU now expects to reciprocate the EU’s efforts, preserving stability and predictability to Northern Ireland, “a key ingredient for the local economy to flourish”. So that the enhanced opportunities that the Protocol and the EU's package provide are realized.

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Lord Frost issued a statement after the meeting saying that it was the UK’s preference to find a consensual way forward. Nevertheless, Frost maintained his threat of using Article 16 safeguards, all be it cushioned as “a legitimate part of the Protocol’s provisions”.

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EU and US in agreement that UK needs to stick to Northern Ireland Protocol

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Today (10 November), the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen met with United States President Joe Biden in the White House where a number of pressing issues were discussed from the situation with Belarus to Ukraine, but the leaders also spoke about the current problems with the UK reneging on its commitments made in the Northern Ireland Protocol.  

Following the meeting, von der Leyen said: “We are willing as a European Union to show the utmost flexibility and we have shown the utmost flexibility within the protocol, but it is important to stick to what we have agreed and signed together to work with that. 

“President Biden and I, we share the assessment that it is important for peace and stability on the island of Ireland to keep the withdrawal agreement and to stick to the protocol.”

The meeting takes place a day after senior U.S. representatives from influential committees issued a statement on the “UK’s threat to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

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Representatives Gregory W. Meeks, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, William R. Keating, Chair of the Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber Subcommittee, Earl Blumenauer, Chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, and Brendan Boyle, stated:

“The Northern Ireland Protocol was a significant achievement during the volatile Brexit process, and its full implementation is critical for ensuring Brexit doesn’t undermine decades of progress toward peace on the island of Ireland. 

“The Good Friday Agreement and broader peace process took patience and time to build, with good faith contributions from the communities in Northern Ireland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and others. However, peace can unravel quickly.  

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“In threatening to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the United Kingdom threatens to not only destabilize trade relations, but also that hard earned peace. We call on the UK to abandon this dangerous path, and to commit to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in full.”

Speaking in the House of Lords today, Lord Frost said that the Commission’s package of proposals to address some business and stakeholder concerns were “worth discussing”. 

Frost said that talks were underway to discuss other important questions “such as the interlinked issues of the imposition of EU law and the Court of Justice, state aid, VAT, goods standards, and so on.”

The government, according to Frost, has not yet given up on the process but in due course could use safeguarding measures allowed under Article 16 of the Protocol. Frost reassured peers that if Article 16 were to be used, the government would set out its case “with confidence and spell out why it was wholly consistent with our legal obligations.” Frost also said that the EU “suggests that we can only take that action at the price of massive and disproportionate retaliation.”

In response to Frost’s statement, Baroness Chapman of Darlington said: “Central to this are the people and communities of Northern Ireland. The evidence increasingly shows that they want a deal between the EU and UK, not another stand-off, with all the uncertainty that that brings. The respected Liverpool Institute for Irish Studies found that people of Northern Ireland oppose the use of Article 16 and instead want solutions [...].

“It is time for the Minister to show some responsibility. He should work constructively with the EU to find solutions, and then, if he still can, given everything that has happened, he must play an active role in rebuilding support and trust among all communities in Northern Ireland.”

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič will meet with Northern Irish businesses and stakeholders again tomorrow.

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