European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic called on Thursday for ‘honesty about what the [UK] signed up to’ amid tensions about a trade agreement to avoid border checks on the island of Ireland.
‘Honesty about the fact that the EU cannot solve all the problems created by Brexit and the type of Brexit that the [UK] government chose,’ Sefcovic said speaking in Brussels before lawmakers from the EU and the UK.
Earlier on Thursday, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss repeated threats to override the Northern Ireland protocol during a phone call with Sefcovic, in favour of a policy that would remove trade barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Truss warned Britain ‘would have no choice but to act’ if issues related to the trade agreement persisted in Northern Ireland and if the EU failed to show ‘the requisite flexibility.’
The EU had offered Britain ‘wide-ranging and impactful solutions,’ but was still waiting for a response from the British government, Sefcovic said in a statement after the call.
Sefcovic insisted that the EU ‘will not renegotiate the protocol’.
On Thursday night, Conor Burns, the UK's Northern Ireland minister, said London recognizes the ‘legitimate ambition’ of the EU to protect its single market and Ireland.
Burns was asked whether issues between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol stemmed from London changing its mind about signing the trade agreement in 2019.
‘We signed up to it on the basis that we recognize the need to reflect the special circumstances of Northern Ireland having two jurisdictions - one in the UK internal market and one country, the Republic of Ireland, in the EU single market,’ he told BBC programme Newsnight.
‘We recognise the need, the legitimate ambition of the EU to protect the single market and the Irish Republic.’
Tension escalated after the Telegraph newspaper reported that Truss would prepare legislation to repeal the Northern Ireland protocol if Brussels was not willing to renegotiate its terms.
The North Ireland protocol was agreed to by the EU and London when the UK left the EU. Under its terms, Northern Ireland remains bound by EU customs rules, despite being part of the UK.
That was worked out to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, because many feared that such a division could rekindle tensions that have been largely kept under control for two decades, following decades of bloody unrest.
As a consequence, goods have to be inspected between Britain and Northern Ireland, causing disruptions to business and angering the region's Pro-UK unionist community, which dislikes any hint it is being cut off from Britain.
The matter wasn't an issue when the UK was in the EU, as trade could flow more or less freely from Britain to all parts of Ireland.
London has lobbied hard to overhaul the Northern Ireland protocol, which was designed to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal that ended decades of sectarian violence.
By Doris Pundy and Ciaran Sunderland, dpa
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