NI Protocol & Brexit: LIVE UPDATES - Maroš Šefčovič expects announcement on imminent chilled meats deadline within next 48 hours

The Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, has told the Stormont Executive Committee that he expects to reach an agreement with the UK government concerning the movement of chilled meats from Great Britain into Northern Ireland within the next 48 hours.

Monday, 28th June 2021, 11:17 pm

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Maroš Šefčovič appeared before the committee on Monday afternoon.

NI Protocol & Brexit: LIVE UPDATES - European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič to appear before Stormont committee today

Last updated: Monday, 28 June, 2021, 14:14

‘Full implementation of Protocol is fundamental'

Maros Sefcovic said the EU had offered flexibilities on issues such as the supply of medicines, tagging of animals, assistance dogs, high risk plants, VAT on second hand cars and steel importation quotas.

“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 said.

“The commission has identified pathways to a good number of flexibilities in line with the protocol and presented the UK with papers, for example in the area of sanitary and phytosanitary measures.”

Referring to the controversy in January over the EU threatening to suspend elements of the protocol in a row over Covid-19 vaccine exports, Mr Sefcovic made clear that the bloc had not followed through with any suspension.

He said reference to the potential of doing so had been a “genuine mistake” that should not place into question the EU’s commitment to the full implementation of the protocol.

“Talking repeatedly as though we have triggered article 16 (suspension measure) irresponsibly fans the flames,” he said.

“Rather we must do everything from every side to de-dramatise the rhetoric and find the solutions.”

Sefcovic to unionists - ‘we are your friend'

Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart asked Mr Sefcovic what he is doing to allay the concerns of unionists in Northern Ireland around the protocol.

Mr Sefcovic said the EU has demonstrated through the peace programme that “we are your friend”.

“For us peace and stability, no hard border are absolutely fundamental principles which should respected throughout the negotiations and which are paramount for us also today,” he said.

“If it comes to the issue of democratic deficit, our negotiating partner is the UK and we have to respect that because we are respecting the constitutional arrangement of the UK, but I am now talking to you, I am ready to be your partner, I am ready to engage with you when you feel this would be appropriate.

“I also know that the European Parliament is very much looking forward to establish this special partnership between the EU and UK parliaments and I know that there is a strong interest in having a special Northern Ireland sub committee … but it’s up to the UK to decide how we would craft the structure for our parliamentary dimension work.”

‘The EU has demonstrated the pragmatism we are occasionally and wrongly accused of lacking'

Maros Sefcovic said the protocol emerged from the long Brexit withdrawal negotiations as the “only possible solution” to keep the Irish land border free flowing.

He said since then there had been no viable alternative suggested.

“Nobody has yet suggested a better workable alternative,” he said.

“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.

“The Protocol is a unique solution that the EU has never offered before. We are outsourcing the control of part of our border to a third country.

“The EU has demonstrated the pragmatism we are occasionally and wrongly accused of lacking. We have spared no efforts in trying to mitigate problems that have arisen in the implementation of the protocol and have explored and put on the table practical and permanent solutions.”

Sefcovic states solution to chilled meats impasse could come in next 48 hours

Mr Sefcovic outlined to Stormont MLAs different types of trade deals with the EU.

He said in the EU/Swiss veterinary agreement there are “no checks needed for all sorts of goods and products”, the EU/New Zealand agreement requires “quite a lot of checks” covered by eleven pieces of legislation.

“I know that the UK Government doesn’t want to have its hands tied because there might be a big free trade agreement coming with important partners like the United States of America, but we know that such agreements take time to negotiate, very often several years and if in the end there will be a need to align to UK SPS rules with those of the US, we would understand and we would say, ok in that case we’ll go back to the checks and controls, but this time we would use the time for bridging over the current situation, I hope we can build up the infrastructure, we can hire and train personnel, we can get the real time access to the IT system so the checks can be performed more smoothly, faster and they will be not intrusive at all to the people of Northern Ireland,” he told MLAs.

“That’s the position we presented to our UK partners, I hope that jointly we can solve the issue of the chilled meat within 48 hours, we will have three months to have another try how to solve this issue. We are approaching this with open minds and we have a ready made recipe how we can sort it out, at least 80% of the checks and controls which are otherwise required.”

Swiss style deal on agri-food would do away with the ‘vast majority’ of new checks

Maros Sefcovic said a Swiss-style deal on agri-food shipments from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would do away with the “vast majority” of new checks.

The agreement the EU has with Switzerland avoids animal and plant health checks because the Swiss align their own regulations with the bloc’s.

When the EU changes its rules, the Swiss change theirs to ensure continued alignment.

“I want to see necessary checks reduced to absolute minimum possible,” said Mr Sefcovic.

“To mention one measure that would address some concerns and could be negotiated very quickly – a so-called Swiss style veterinarian agreement with the UK continuing to apply EU SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) rules will do away with the vast majority of the checks in the Irish Sea and would not require checks elsewhere, say in Northern Ireland, including for travels with pets, for example.”

Mr Sefcovic said a New Zealand style deal would not do away with as many checks.

The EU and New Zealand agreement involves both parties mutually recognising that the other has high food safety standards. This reduces the proportion of checks required but allows New Zealand to continue to set its own SPS regulations.

Time to ‘dedramatise’ language around NI Protocol says Maros Sefcovic

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic has told Stormont MLAs that the EU is prepared to take “bold steps” to address issues with Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Giving evidence remotely to a special sitting of the Assembly’s Executive Office committee, Mr Sefcovic said the EU was prepared to accommodate flexibilities to reduce Irish Sea trade checks to the “absolute minimum possible”.

However, he said the UK had to reciprocate by demonstrating a commitment to the “full and faithful” implementation of the Protocol.

“We are willing to consider taking bold steps if the UK Government demonstrates a clear and concrete commitment to implementing the protocol in full,” he said.

Maros Sefcovic said there was a need to “dedramatise” the rhetoric around the Protocol.

A prohibition on GB chilled meats entering Northern Ireland is due to come into force later this week, though the EU has indicated a willingness to grant a UK request to extend a temporary exemption period for a further three months to provide space to find an alternative solution.

Mr Sefcovic told Stormont Assembly members he was not in a position to formally confirm the granting of the extension, but said he was “confident” a solution would be found in the next 48 hours.

NI Protocol & Brexit: LIVE UPDATES - European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič to appear before Stormont committee today

The European Commission’s vice president is to face questions from Stormont Assembly members on Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.

Maros Sefcovic, who is the senior EU official with responsibility for the Protocol’s implementation, is appearing virtually before a special sitting of the Assembly’s Executive Office scrutiny committee on Monday afternoon.

It is the first time he has briefed any parliamentary committee in the UK on the Irish Sea border controversy.

His appearance comes amid continuing dispute over the post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Protocol, which was agreed by the EU and UK as a way to keep the land border on the island of Ireland free-flowing, has created a series of new checks and restrictions on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

Technical talks are ongoing between London and Brussels to try to hammer out ways to reduce the burden of red tape.

A prohibition on GB chilled meats entering Northern Ireland is due to come into force later this week, though the EU has indicated a willingness to grant a UK request to extend a temporary exemption period for a further three months to provide space to find an alternative solution.

On Sunday, the UK Government said it had yet to receive formal confirmation that the EU had agreed to the extension.

Ahead of Mr Sefcovic’s Stormont appearance, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the EU must back up its words about showing flexibility on the Protocol with actions.

Mr Lewis also made clear the Government would act to “rectify” the “big disruption” caused by the Irish Sea trade barriers.

He blamed the problems attributed to the Protocol on the EU’s “purist” implementation.

However, Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin insisted EU leaders had no desire to implement any trade restrictions that “don’t make sense” and were willing to resolve the dispute over the Protocol.

Taoiseach Mr Martin said the UK had to show a similar willingness to find workable solutions and expressed concern that “domestic politics” in Britain are getting in the way of that.

The UK/EU exchanges are playing out as tensions among Northern Ireland loyalists mount over the arrangements they claim have driven a constitutional wedge between the region and the rest of the UK.

There are concerns that loyalist anger could boil over during Northern Ireland’s sensitive loyal order parading season during the summer.

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