Take a chill pill, EU tells UK over Northern Ireland protocol

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has urged the British government to “dial down the rhetoric” on the Brexit trade agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol and “be honest about the deal they signed” amid expectations that London could renege on the protocol.  

The Slovak commissioner told POLITICO Brussels Playbook on Sunday evening that the EU has “already shown a lot of flexibility by proposing impactful, durable solutions and we stand ready to continue discussions. We need the UK Government to dial down the rhetoric, be honest about the deal they signed and agree to find solutions within its framework.”

Insisting that the EU has “absolutely no interest in interfering in the U.K.’s internal affairs,” he said that the U.K. should show “genuine determination and good faith to make the Protocol work, rather than looking for ways to erode it.”

He was speaking after a watershed election in Northern Ireland that saw the nationalist Sinn Féin party, which supports the reunification of Ireland, win the most seats in the Stormont Assembly. The Democratic Unionist Party, which supports Northern Ireland remaining in the U.K., came in second — a fundamental shift in the political landscape of the region.

The fears in Brussels is that the U.K. government could introduce new legislation to disapply aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol following the election. 

The DUP has indicated that it may not nominate a deputy first minister as part of the power-sharing arrangement that has governed Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 — insisting that the Northern Ireland protocol that forms part of the Brexit deal must first be changed.

The protocol, part of the post-Brexit EU-U.K. trade agreement, has left Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods, although the rest of the U.K. exited at the start of 2021. This arrangement, which was supported by the British government during the negotiations, has led to new customs and sanitary checks on British goods when they arrive at Northern Ireland’s ports, not when they cross the land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member — something that the DUP believes undermines Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. 

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned Saturday that the DUP would block formation of a new government using the cross-community rule, meaning both unionists and nationalists must agree on key decisions, adding he would relent only if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson first meets DUP demands to stop EU checks at the Northern Irish border with Great Britain.

“The prime minister and the government need to act on this,” Donaldson said. “If he doesn’t deliver, he must recognize that means perpetual political instability.”

British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said in an interview on Sunday that changes to the protocol “cannot be put off.” “If not, we’ll have to take the measures to make sure that the economic integrity of the trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain and frankly the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is protected and preserved.” 

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