Ursula von der Leyen has blamed Brexit for the disruption to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland but has reiterated her offer to find “practical solutions” to issues destabilising politics in the region.
After a summit of the 27 heads of state and government in Brussels, the European Commission president defended the arrangements in the withdrawal agreement designed to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.
“I think it is important to reiterate that the protocol is the only possible solution to ensure peace and stability in Noord-Ierland while protecting the integrity of the European Union’s single market," sy het gese. “If we see problems today we should not forget that they do not come from the protocol but they result from Brexit. That is the reason why the problems are there.
'Nou, it’s our common duty with the United Kingdom to do whatever we can to reduce tensions in Northern Ireland and that is why we are exploring practical solutions to help to minimise the disruptions to the everyday life in Northern Ireland.”
Under the protocol in the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland in effect stays in the EU’s single market for goods, and a customs border is enforced on goods crossing the Irish sea. But checks on goods at the ports of Belfast and Larne have sparked anger among unionists and loyalists who feel Northern Ireland is being separated from the rest of the UK.
Symbolic issues such as the difficulty of buying British-grown plants and other products in shops in Northern Ireland have offered an excuse for some to engage in violent protest.
Verlede week, the chair of the Loyalist Communities Council in Northern Ireland, with links to former paramilitaries, warned of the risk of further violence and described tensions over Brexit as “probably the most dangerous for many years”. The new leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Edwin Poots, has also said the Northern Ireland protocol is impractical and should be “dismantled”.
Officials in London and Brussels are continuing to discuss how they might find solutions to the checks and paperwork hampering the smooth flow of trade at ports in Northern Ireland. The UK has recently proposed that checks on food crossing the Irish sea be phased in from the autumn in four stages.
UK sources have suggested that the commission’s main representative in the talks, Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the EU’s executive branch, has shown some willingness to be flexible but that there is more resistance from the member states. Some of those issues were discussed at a summit dinner attended by the heads of state and government in Brussels on Monday evening.
In her comments after that discussion, Von der Leyen sought to offer reassurance to the EU capitals, concerned about goods passing into the single market that do not meet Brussels standards, and the British authorities. It is understood that Lord Frost has repeatedly advised the commission that it has a responsibility as a co-signatory of the withdrawal agreement’s arrangements to make them work.
Talks are, egter, continuing against a background of choppy relations between the UK and the EU, with the most recent flashpoint being Boris Johnson’s deployment of the Royal Navy in response to threats of a blockade by French fishers of the Jersey port of St Helier. It is claimed that EU fishing vessels are not being granted the level of access to British waters guaranteed in the trade and cooperation agreement struck with the UK last Christmas Eve.
Von der Leyen said: “The beginnings are not easy, tensions are being felt around the access, byvoorbeeld, of EU fishing boats, or tensions are without any doubt there around the implementation of the protocol of Northern Ireland.”