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Šefčovič describes Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol as ‘a great opportunity’

Catherine Feore

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Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič updated European affairs ministers

Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič updated European affairs ministers on EU/UK relations, including the need to extend the ratification of the EU/UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) from the end of February until 30 April, he also updated them on issues linked to the Withdrawal Agreement, and in particular the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol.

The extension of the provisional application period for the TCA is needed to allow for the full legal translation of the agreement into 24 languages and the European Parliament’s approval. Šefčovič informed ministers that the UK had accepted the need for this extra time. The UK reply was officious in tone, complaining that the UK was disappointed that the EU had: “Not completed its internal processes in the agreed timeframe, given the uncertainty it creates for businesses and individuals on both sides. We expect the EU to meet the new timeline.”

Šefčovič said of the new agreement: “I think it is clear to everyone now that our partnership with the UK does not replicate or resemble the UK’s former membership of the European Union. We will continue to keep a watchful eye over the proper application of this agreement.”

He promised the EU’s full and “unwavering commitment to the full and proper implementation of the withdrawal agreement". On the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland he said: “We will be going into tomorrow’s joint committee meeting with a constructive and solution-driven attitude. 

“The EU has always been and remains fully committed to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and to the proper implementation of the protocol, protecting the gains of the peace process, maintaining stability, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and preserving the integrity of the single market. At the same time, to make the protocol work on the ground, we need to act jointly to minimize the impact of the Brexit on the everyday lives of all communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“We are open to pragmatic and flexible solutions to facilitate the implementation. In line with the protocol and the EU law.”

Šefčovič said there were consequences of the UK leaving the European Union. He listed the different concessions that had been made to help the UK, but said he needed to hear what progress had been made on using extensions, the trusted trader mechanism and access to VAT databases in real time - among others - before discussing the further flexibility and extensions to 2023 requested by the UK-side.  

‘A great opportunity’ 

Despite recent controversy in Northern Ireland concerning the protocol, the vice president described being in the Single Market, at the same time as being in the internal market of the UK as a “great business opportunity”. He hopes that joint EU/UK work can help amplify this.

Czech Republic

Czech police hunt two men wanted over Salisbury novichok poisonings

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Police in the Czech Republic are hunting two men whose passports match the names of the two suspects in the Salisbury poisonings.

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (pictured) are wanted in the UK over the novichok attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018.

Czech police said on Saturday (17 April) that they are searching for two men carrying various passports, including Russian ones under the names Petrov, 41, and Boshirov, 43.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were attacked with novichok and found slumped on a bench in Salisbury in March
Sergei and Yulia Skripal were attacked with a nerve agent in 2018

It comes as Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said 18 Russian diplomats are being expelled over allegations that Russian intelligence services were involved in an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014.

The explosion happened on 16 October at a depot in the town of Vrbetice where 50 tonnes of ammunition was being stored. Two men died as a result. Advertisement

Mr Babis said: "There is well-grounded suspicion about the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence service GRU... in the explosion of ammunitions depot in the Vrbetice area."

Czech foreign minister Jan Hamacek said 18 Russian embassy staff identified as secret service personnel would be ordered to leave the country within 48 hours.

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A diplomatic source cited by Russian news agency Interfax suggested the expulsions could prompt Russia to shut the Czech Republic's embassy in Moscow.

Petrov and Boshirov denied being Russian operatives or being involved in the Skripals' poisoning in March 2018.

They told Russia Today they were only in Salisbury as tourists to visit the cathedral and nearby Stonehenge.

Police published a detailed photographic account of the men's movements while in the UK.

An Interpol "red notice" and a European warrant have been issued for their arrest should they try to leave Russia.

Czech Police said in a statement that they are looking for "two persons" who "used at least two identities... in connection with the investigations of the circumstances of serious crime".

They said they were in the Czech Republic from 11 to 16 October 2014, "first in Prague, then in the Moravian-Silesian Region and the Zlin Region".

As well as Petrov and Boshirov, they also used Moldovan and Tajikistan passports under the names Nicolai Popa and Ruslan Tabarov, they added.

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Brexit

UK to respond to EU legal action over Northern Ireland by mid-May

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Britain has agreed with the European Union that it will respond to the bloc’s legal action over how it has introduced new trading rules for Northern Ireland by mid-May, a spokeswoman for the government said on Wednesday (14 April), writes Elizabeth Piper.

The EU launched legal action against Britain in March for unilaterally changing trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that Brussels says are in breach of the Brexit divorce deal agreed with London last year.

Britain has denied that the move undermines the part of the Brexit deal that governs trade to the British province, saying it extended the grace period for checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland to ease their passage.

“In line with precedent that typically allows two months to respond to proceedings of this kind, we have agreed with the EU that we will respond to the Letter of Formal Notice by mid-May,” the spokeswoman said.

“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Since leaving the EU’s single market at the end of last year, supermarkets in Northern Ireland have seen some shortages of food, and the British government has also delayed introducing checks on parcels and pets.

The difficulties stem from the terms of Britain’s withdrawal agreement, which leaves Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods and so requires checks on goods arriving there from other parts of the United Kingdom.

The two sides are due to meet on Thursday for talks on Northern Ireland at a meeting unlikely to reach a breakthrough but seen more as a staging post as London and Brussels try to find a way to ease differences over trade.

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Brexit

UK and EU edge closer to deal on Brexit checks in Northern Ireland

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The UK is edging towards a new deal with the EU on Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland with the potential for easing border checks on certain goods. Officials in London and Brussels have been involved in intense “technical talks” in the past two weeks over the future checks on food, plants and parcels going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Downing Street’s official spokesman said the discussions had been constructive but that there were “still significant differences that need to be resolved”. The cabinet minister David Frost spoke by phone to the European commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Friday.

Sources said that while progress has been made on Northern Ireland, efforts did not involve removing checks on goods but instead were being concentrated on removing the series of “rolling deadlines” from the implementation of border controls.

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One option is a new series of agreed milestones to be achieved involving agreement with business and civic society before each stage of the protocol is implemented. It would mirror public health experts’ “data not dates” advice to Boris Johnson regarding the easing of lockdown in England.Advertisementhttps://fe51aebfd36b7b7e45cc937da958003b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The talks began a fortnight ago after relations with the EU reached a low point, with Brussels launching legal action against the UK for taking a unilateral decision to extend the grace period for checks on supermarket goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

A cabinet source played down the row, claiming the dispute was a result of an unfortunate “mismatch in the communications last month”. This reflects revived urgent efforts to sort out the situation and a recognition in London that a joint approach is the way forward.

This is a change in policy from February when Michael Gove demanded the protocol be delayed until 2023.

Last week the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, told political parties in Belfast that the protocol would not be scrapped, despite demands by the Democratic Unionist party and others, and seven consecutive nights of violence in Northern Ireland.

There is urgent political need to calm the atmosphere in Northern Ireland but there is also recognition in London, Dublin and Brussels that any deal centring on the protocol will not address loyalist protests. Brexit checks down the Irish Sea have enraged loyalist communities who see the trade border as an assault on Northern Ireland’s place in the union of the UK.

EU sources have put it to UK officials that 90% of border checks could disappear if Britain agreed to align food standards with those of the bloc.

Ireland’s Europe minister, Thomas Byrne, told the BBC the situation was “delicate” but he said it would be “excellent” if a veterinary deal could be achieved as it would solve problems both in Northern Ireland and those facing food exporters in Great Britain.

But many see such a food agreement as unlikely because entering into such as deal would represent a complete U-turn for the UK, which opposed regulatory alignment to achieve a hard Brexit.

There have been suggestions that the border checks could be significantly eased if the UK adopted an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade. However, industry insiders say this would not address loyalist concerns as it still requires paperwork.

The agrifood sector is instead urging the EU and UK to take a pragmatic approach by extending the categories of goods deemed not at risk of crossing into the Republic of Ireland to include food.

The current talks are focusing on a new implementation programme outlined in a plan delivered by London to Brussels a fortnight ago. The EU has also requested real-time access to customs and border check data in Belfast ports.

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