EU signals major softening on Irish Sea border rules for medicines as it agrees to change its legislation

The EU has given the first signal that it is prepared to radically change its stance on the permanent implementation of the Irish Sea border – but has insisted that the bulk of the NI Protocol must remain.

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 7:01 am
Maroš Šefčovič appeared via a blurry video-link with MLAs yesterday

European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič yesterday told a Stormont committee that the EU is prepared to do something which it had previously ruled out in order to alter what otherwise would have led to problems accessing some medicines from the start of next year.

The most senior EU negotiator on the protocol said: “We are willing to consider taking bold steps if the UK government demonstrates a clear and concrete commitment to implementing the protocol in full.”

On a blurry video-link, Mr Šefčovič also indicated to MLAs that the ban on British chilled meats coming into Northern Ireland – due to be implemented on Thursday – should again be delayed by the extension of a ‘grace period’ at the last moment.

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MLAs preferred rambling statements rather than pointed questions

However, that only puts off the full implementation of the protocol, rather than altering its long-term reality.

But Mr Šefčovič adopted a very different tone when referring to the enforcement of EU rules on medicines in Northern Ireland.

Referring to the looming medicine border which is coming at the end of this year, he said it was an “acutely sensitive” issue.

The senior EU official said that it was “very, very sensitive and also personally important for me we will sort out this very important issue”.

He added: “We want to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland have full access to all the medicines they need. We are ready to move ahead fast.”

He added: “This will not be easy, as this would require a change of our EU rules but I am committed to do this important effort if it requires actual legislative change on our side.”

In the past, the EU has referred the possibility of dealing with problems by looking at flexibilities in the protocol and EU law.

However, Mr Šefčovič’s position shows that the EU is now prepared to go far further in relation to medicines and actually change its own legislation.

Last month the News Letter revealed that a new cancer treatment had been approved by the UK medicines regulator, but that the approval was only for Great Britain.

Under the terms of the protocol, Northern Ireland still comes under the remit of the EU’s regulator and because it had not yet approved that use of the drug Tagrisso it remained an unapproved treatment in Northern Ireland, making it harder to obtain.

Mr Šefčovič repeated that the EU threatening to trigger Arlicle 16 over vaccines was a “genuine mistake”.

He said that the EU was also exploring solutions to problems caused by the protocol in several other areas, including VAT on second hand cars coming from Great Britain and tariff quotas on steel entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Mr Šefčovič framed his offer in the context of a firm UK commitment to accept and implement the protocol in the long term.

He said: “Full implementation of the protocol is our fundamental starting point. On that basis, we can discuss which permanent flexibilities in the implementation we can agree to.”

He defended the protocol, saying that “nobody has yet suggested a better workable alternative” and went on: “The protocol needs to be fully and correctly implemented and at the same time our approach has been – and still is – solution-oriented, constructive and flexible”.

He said that the EU’s stance demonstrated “the pragmatism we are frequently – and wrongly – accused of lacking” but warned: “Naturally, there are limits, however, to what can be achieved.”

Mr Šefčovič said that “ultimately our work is to ensure that peace and stability in Northern Ireland are protected, at the same time preserving the integrity of the EU single market – including Ireland’s place in it – while also having as little impact as possible on daily lives of citizens in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Šefčovič argued that the protocol limits the damage of Brexit in Northern Ireland and creates opportunities to attract investment, but stressed that there was a need for political stability if those benefits were to be realised.

He said that unlike Norway, “you don’t have to pay for access to this biggest trading bloc”.

Moderate unionist rejects peace claims

One of the most moderate unionist MLAs, who supported the 1998 Belfast Agreement, forcefully reminded Maroš Šefčovič that unionism does not accept the EU argument that the NI Protocol was necessary to protect that agreement and to protect peace.

Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart told the European Commission vice president that “it does feel like these concerns are not being heard”.

He said that particularly among the unionist community there are genuine, powerful, legitimate concerns about the impact of the protocol.

Mr Sefcovic replied that “peace, stability, no hard border are absolute fundamental principles ... paramount for us”.

Mr Stewart said that the protocol was undemocratic, making Northern Ireland follow laws set by people whom voters here cannot remove from office. Mr  Šefčovič responded: “As you know, our negotiating partner is the UK and we have to respect that because we are respecting the constitutional arrangement of the UK.

“But, I have to underline here – I am talking to you. I’m ready to be your partner, your guest; I’m ready to engage with you when you feel this would be appropriate.”

Mr Stewart, an East Antrim MLA, reponded: “Your argument that the protocol protects the Good Friday Agreement, I simply cannot accept. I’m very proud of the Good Friday Agreement; I’m very proud of the role the Ulster Unionist Party played in that.

“Myself, my party, architects of that agreement all believe the protocol damages the Good Friday Agreement ... so how can you argue that it protects and upholds the Good Friday Agreement when so many people are arguing that it actually drives a horse and cart through the middle of it, given that it is putting a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?”

Mr Sefcovic quoted from the protocol, saying that it said it protected the agreement, adding; “This was clearly our position ... I understand that was also the position of our UK partners who negotiated not only the withdrawal agreement and trade and cooperation agreement, but also the protocol line by line and we have clearly concluded that this is definitely the best way forward.”

We well never accept the protocol, Stalford tells EU

Unionists will never accept the Irish Sea border, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford yesterday told Maroš Šefčovič.

The South Befast MLA said: “Several times, you have said you are here to listen, Dr Sefcovic. Listen to me: We do not, will not, have not, and never will consent to the provisions of the protocol.

“It has been imposed upon our head, perhaps in dalliance with the government at Westminster. But let me assure you that not a single unionist representative in this place endorses the provision of the protocol.”

He asked why there was a “rigorous and aggressive regime of checks” at Northern Ireland’s ports when in the last few months there had been very little divergence between the UK and EU rules and suggested it was an attempt to punish the UK.

Mr Sefcovic replied: “Thank you very much ... for your very clear position.” He said that he understood the comments, but “under no circumstances can I accept the fact that we are trying to use Northern Ireland to punish the UK. That’s not true, sir. I can absolutely assure you of that.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said in a statement: “Today’s events underscore the democratic deficit when it comes to the protocol. Who elected Dr Sefcovic? How can the people of Northern Ireland hold him to account? Indeed, prior to this year who in Northern Ireland had heard of him?”

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