Northern Ireland news

EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness: As EU offers solutions, British government creates another problem

As Brussels launches retaliatory action over British government plans to unilaterally override the protocol, European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness tells political correspondent John Manley how the Johnson administration's actions are "fuelling a fire" in the north and destroying Anglo-Irish relations...

FORMER Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness's mood is reflective of that across much of the European Union. The response to this week's publication of legislation that will unpick key elements of the agreement finally brokered with the EU at the end of 2019 is one of bewilderment and frustration.

"What has really surprised, shocked and disappointed the commission is that with every effort there is to find a solution, the UK creates another problem – and it's hard to fathom why that is the case," she told The Irish News, speaking from Brussels yesterday.

"We're almost six years on from the referendum and these problems should be behind us yet we face more problems in front of us."

The commissioner for financial stability, financial services and the capital markets notes how British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's assessment of the "oven ready" deal struck with the EU 18 months ago has moved from "fantastic" to one of seeking to dismantle it.

She declines to second guess the Tory leader's motivations for this week's "very serious course of action" but believes there has been "no real genuine effort" on the UK's part to implement the protocol, in particular the sharing of data with the EU.

"There was always going to be teething problems and implementation problems with the protocol, but its important to stress that these problems exist because of Brexit and the protocol is designed to address them," she says.

Ms McGuiness stresses that Brussels remains ready to resolve "difficulties" but insists they will "not be solved by unilateral action".

"The EU is in solution seeking mode – and has been right from the very outset of the discussions about how Northern Ireland would be impacted by a hard Brexit, which is the type of Brexit chosen by Boris Johnson," she says.

"Vice-President [Maros] Sefcovic is very well informed about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, he has spoken directly to people and business in Northern Ireland. If there were genuine efforts to solve problems, the protocol and its benefits would be in full view for business and citizens in Northern Ireland."

While urging the British government to engage with Maros Sefcovic and the commission, the former Fine Gael MEP notes: "We need to say very clearly that the protocol is not up for renegotiating – this is the shared view of member states, the European Parliament and the commission.

"And we have been very clear on this. However, we are not blind to the practical problems on the ground with implementation and here we have already proposed solutions, wide ranging and practical solutions, as far back as October 2021.

"We are urging the UK government to come back to the table and discuss those proposals which arise from the flexibilities within the protocol."

The agricultural journalist-turned-politician believes businesses in the north are "already reaping the rewards" of having access to the EU single market.

"You can see this in the economic figures for the region and the increase in trade north/south," she says.

"Having access to the EU single market puts NI in a uniquely enviable position – equal access to the UK market and the EU single market."

She points to support for the protocol from within the north's dairy sector, where up to third of liquid milk is transported south daily for processing.

"A hard Brexit, without the protocol, would have had severe consequences for farmers and the processing sector," she says.?

Ms McGuinness also endorses the letter sent to Boris Johnson on Monday by 52 Sinn Féin, Alliance and SDLP MLAs stating their opposition to the British government legislation. She describes it as "straight to the point".

"Citizens in Northern Ireland deserve to have their elected assembly working for them and it is regrettable that this is not happening. The statement from the majority of MLAs rejecting the action taken by the UK government in the strongest possible terms should be heeded," she says.

 

"Some of the commentary around the views one party or another, I think is just fuelling a fire that doesn't need to be stoked. In a sense we know there are differences, but if the government gives succour to one more than another then I think that's going to cause problems."

 

The commissioner believes the British government wrangling over the protocol has led to a deterioration of relations not only with Brussels but also with Dublin.

"It is no secret that Anglo-Irish relations are strained, you will have heard what the taoiseach while in Strasbourg talk about an historic low," she says.

"This is very regrettable but hardly a surprise given the actions of the UK government."

Across the world too, the UK's reputation is being damaged, Ms McGuinness suggests.

"Look, today the EU and the UK are united in our approach to Russia and its illegal invasion of Ukraine – as it should be," she says.

"The decision of the UK Government to propose far-reaching legislation to effectively give itself the power to disapply all or part of the protocol is alarming. I’m sure there are questions around the globe about why the UK is doing this – is it for the good of Northern Ireland?"

She refrains from talking about a potential trade war with Britain, insisting the EU's response to any British government unilateral action will be "appropriate, proportionate and legal".

"I do not want to even think about an escalation of this impasse," the commissioner says.

"We need to rebuild trust and get down to the business of solving problems together in the best interests of the people and businesses in Northern Ireland."

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