EU office in Belfast on the agenda in EU/Brexit committee talks
A SPECIAL body tasked with implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol has met for the first time, with the ongoing impasse over an European Commission office in Belfast among the items on the agenda.
The remote meeting held via video conference involved members of seven EU states along with representatives of the British and Irish governments and an official from the Northern Ireland assembly.
The panel was co-chaired by Cabinet minister Michael Gove and Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
While request to allow the European Commission to retain an office in Belfast to oversee the protocol was raised, it is believed the British once again refused to allow an EU presence in Northern Ireland.
The committee is focused on ensuring the Protocol to avoid a hard border and to protect the 1998 peace agreement "in all its dimensions" remains intact during Britain's withdrawal from the EU.
Speaking afterwards a spokesperson for the British government said the "UK and the EU exchanged updates on the implementation of the Protocol and discussed the preparatory work for future decisions to be taken by the Joint Committee."
"The UK was clear that our approach at all times will be focused on protecting the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and gains of the peace process, and on preserving Northern Ireland's place in the UK.
"UK officials reaffirmed our commitment to complying with our legal obligations under the Protocol, just as we expect the EU to comply with theirs.
"The two sides agreed to convene the Joint Consultative Working Group established under the Protocol which will be a further forum for discussion in relation to the Protocol".
A spokesperson for the European Commission said the discussion "took place in a constructive atmosphere".
"The parties took stock of the implementation efforts on both sides. They also had a first exchange on the decisions the Joint Committee is tasked with taking before the end of the transition period, and which the Specialised Committee has been asked to prepare.
"The proper and timely implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement remains a key priority for the EU, in particular for maintaining peace and stability on the island of Ireland in the context of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, while ensuring the integrity of the Single Market.
"A new partnership can only be built on the faithful and effective implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
"The exchanges in the Specialised Committee now urgently need to be followed up by tangible measures.
"The Commission remains ready to work with the UK to ensure the Protocol can be applied in full from January 1, 2021".
SDLP Brexit Spokesperson Matthew O'Toole MLA has said "the interests of Northern Ireland cannot be jeopardised by the UK Government's dangerous Brexit negotiating strategy".
"The Assembly has not yet had a single debate or ministerial update on Brexit or the protocol since reforming.
"This may be understandable in the context of the public health crisis, but given the UK Government's refusal to countenance extending the transition period, it poses it enormous risk. Added to this are real concerns that the UK Government is deliberately running down the clock and stalling on implementation of the protocol because it believes it will generate leverage over the EU.
"But the bigger picture is that we are in an unprecedented public health crisis and know that we are entering a deep economic crisis. Governments simply do not have the capacity to negotiate a new trade deal in the coming months", Mr O'Toole added.
With the European Commission office in Belfast forced to close in January, Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard said: "The British Government have been slow to act in fulfilling its legal obligations to implement the protocol in relation to the north, and are attempting to stop the EU from establishing a presence in Belfast to monitor the delivery of these commitments, which has the support of Sinn Féin, Alliance, SDLP and the Greens.
"Time is running out to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol while negotiating the future relationship.
"Sinn Fein advocated a policy of designated special status for the North which recognises our unique circumstances which was achieved.
"It is time for foot dragging and vague promises to end, and for commitments to be honoured. This is a key priority for all parties in the weeks ahead."