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9th Dec 2021

Irish commissioner: UK needs to live up to Northern Ireland deal

  • Finance commissioner Mairead McGuinness said 'there wasn’t sufficient acknowledgement from the UK side' what the protocol on Northern Ireland meant on the ground (Photo: European Commission)

The UK needs to implement its agreements with the EU on Northern Ireland, and its consequences need to be acknowledged by London, EU commissioner Mairead McGuinness told a group of journalists on Wednesday (17 March).

The EU Commission launched legalaction against the British government on Monday for what it said was a breach in the EU-UK agreement, after London unilaterally decided to extend a transition period for applying new rules, which are part of the protocol on Northern Ireland.

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The arrangements on Northern Ireland were one of the most complex hurdles in the Brexit negotiations.

The UK's departure meant that the EU's external border now cuts across the island of Ireland, and the deal aimed at avoiding a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland - that has seen decades of sectarian violence - and apply some checks across the Irish Sea instead.

McGuinness, who is responsible for financial services in the commission, said "there was quite some head-turning when the UK negotiated with itself an extra period of time" to facilitate the transition, since the negotiations should have been done with the EU.

Solutions will have to be found collectively, she added.

"I remember borders and barriers and soldiers and checkpoints from my past," the Irish commissioner said, who herself was born in a county on the border between north and south.

"It's very difficult for people of a younger generation to realise that there were these barriers and being part of Europe got rid of barriers and borders. Brexit brought them back. It brought them back to a place in the Irish Sea where at least we felt, and the UK agreed, there could be accommodations," she said.

"It took a long time and a great deal of efforts to agree to the protocol, it needs to be implemented, including dealing with all of the sensitivities," said McGuinness, a former MEP, adding that the EU is "fully aware" of those sensitivities and is working towards healing them.

McGuinness said, however, that after the agreement, "there wasn't sufficient acknowledgement from the UK side on what it meant, practically, on the ground", and that not enough preparation was done by London.

She said, "it was absolutely clear what would be required once the protocol was signed up to and a commitment was made to implement it".

McGuinness has said divisions increased since Brexit because of the unique situation of Northern Ireland.

The majority of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The unionist community has urged London to tear up the protocol as it dislikes checks in the Irish Sea, putting barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of mainland Great Britain.

McGuinness argued that the UK government had not "fully thrashed out, with clarity, as to what the implications would be" of the protocol.

However, that acknowledgement by London seems to come with great difficulties, as it continues to rail against the arrangement it had agreed to in the withdrawal agreement with the EU.

On Wednesday, British foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused the EU of trying to erect a border in the Irish sea and accused the EU of threatening the 1998 agreement peace deal there.

Raab pointed to the EU's brief triggering of the so-called Article 16 of the protocol, suspending pre-agreed arrangements. The commission, at the time, reversed the decision in a few hours and admitted the mistake.

McGuinness said of the incident that after the commission corrected the move, what "really troubled" her was that "anyone would doubt the sincerity of the commission, of the EU, towards Northern Ireland", as the EU has been key to the peace process.

Brexit trade gap

Raab meanwhile Wednesday also defended the UK's "calibrated approach" towards China after the government signalled a strategic UK shift post-Brexit towards the Asia-Pacific region to boost trade and influence in the region.

Brexit has meant the UK needs to look for new markets.

January trade data showed that exports of goods fell by 19.3 percent, because of a 40.7-percent fall in exports to the EU.

Imports of goods also fell by 21.6 percent in January, driven by a 28.8 percent fall in imports from the EU.

Total imports of goods from non-EU countries also fell by 12.7 percent and exports increased by 1.7 percent.

David Henig, director of the UK trade policy project at the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) told EUobserver that only a quarter of that loss can be accounted for by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some of that will be a permanent loss, Henig said, but it is hard to tell yet how much of it can be salvaged by companies adjusting - or whether they will give up permanently.

Henig said "there is little evidence" a turn towards Asia by the UK government can offset those losses.

"Geography is very important for trade, there are new trade barriers, supply chains are regional rather than global, and it is difficult to increase significantly trade in goods and even services," he said.

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