Brussels urges reset in EU-UK relations to tackle key issues

The EU’s Brexit negotiator has called for a strategic partnership with the UK to tackle key issues including climate change and European security, saying that a resolution of the dispute over Northern Ireland would “re-establish political trust”. 

Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice-president, said London and Brussels should seek to resolve the “politically sensitive issues” over the Northern Ireland protocol early in the new year and before campaigning begins for the regional assembly’s May elections.

Speaking to the Financial Times on Friday, the day before UK Brexit minister Lord David Frost’s resignation became public, Sefcovic welcomed the UK’s “more constructive” approach in the past two weeks. London dropped a demand for the European Court of Justice to lose its role in enforcing the protocol and signalled further compromises, which some political observers believe prompted Frost’s decision to quit.

Sefcovic on Sunday declined to comment on Frost’s resignation.

He said a Northern Ireland deal would allow the two sides “to move to where I think we both should belong: to the global stage, where we are tackling together global challenges from climate change, some security threats from the fringes of Europe and really develop that strategic element of our co-operation”.

He said he expected to keep legal action against the UK frozen provided the more constructive dialogue continued, adding that his goal was to “depoliticise and de-dramatise” the relationship between London and Brussels. “We don’t want more conflict, we want less.”

But the Slovak former diplomat added that the UK threat of triggering Article 16, which would suspend much of the protocol, was making it harder to advance other aspects of the relationship, including UK membership of the Horizon scientific research programme, which remains suspended. He called for London to “restore the value of the signature below the agreements which have been signed”.

“On our side there is much more care into studying the documents we are signing.” 

Frost’s hardline stance did persuade Brussels to offer changes to the protocol in October, accepting it was creating trade disruption and political concern in Northern Ireland.

The protocol avoided a trade border on the island of Ireland by keeping the region in the EU’s single market for goods, with checks taking place between Northern Ireland and the British mainland instead.

Brussels on Friday legislated to ensure British medicines could continue to be marketed there. It has also offered an “express lane” for goods heading to Northern Ireland that were unlikely to leak across the border into Ireland and the wider single market.

It claims that the changes would cut customs checks in half and health checks by 80 per cent, although the UK has questioned those figures, with the result that talks have hardly progressed.

Sefcovic said he could guarantee those reductions but “everything depends on the quality of the safeguards” from the UK, such as giving the EU real-time access to customs data.

“Can the trusted trade scheme really be trusted? What will happen in the case where we have some kind of public health alert, some spoilt shrimp or some kind of damaged goods that need to be pulled off the shelves?

“Why are you telling us that putting a sticker on a food product ‘only for the UK’ is a huge problem when you have a sticker on everything on the shelves that you can take two for the price of three or there is a discount? What is so cosmically difficult about that?”

He called for an end to “political dramas”. “Ninety per cent of the problems coming to us . . . could be solved at a technical level.

“It would good if we could solve this as quickly as possible.”

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