Northern Irish companies will almost certainly lose access to the EU single market if Boris Johnson’s legislation to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol becomes law, EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic has said.
he former Slovak diplomat gave a clear indication that the protocol’s key economic benefit for some firms could be lost if Mr Johnson does not back down.
A lengthy interview with the Belfast Telegraph newspaper was suggested by Mr Sefcovic, an indication that the EU may be belatedly realising it needs to do more to explain its position directly to the people of Northern Ireland.
Asked if the UK prime minister’s bill to undo much of the protocol could lead to local firms losing access to the single market, Mr Sefcovic initially said: “I wouldn’t go that far and I wouldn’t speculate at this stage but I have to say one thing: as you probably have seen… we are very proportionate in our response, very measured – because we want to keep the doors open, we want to negotiate, we want to find a joint solution… if the bill is approved as drafted, of course, nothing is excluded; all options are on the table.”
However, later in the interview, Mr Sefcovic was more explicit. When asked about the possibility that the EU would accept the removal of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from the protocol, he said: “The European Court of Justice is there to rule on the European law and the rules of the single market. That’s the only remit the European Court of Justice has vis a vis Northern Ireland.
“What I can tell you with 100pc certainty is that I cannot imagine that there will be access for Northern Ireland to the single market without respecting the fact that the European Court of Justice is the ultimate arbiter on adopting the rulings on how the EU law and single market rules are applied.”
Presenting the ECJ as a protection of the rights of Northern Ireland businesses, he referred to work by the commission last year to ensure European ports gave full access to Northern Irish goods, saying the ECJ was the only fallback.
He said the ECJ “will always rule to protect the rights of the businesspeople coming from Northern Ireland [who] would be placing their goods on the European single market”.
When asked if it was just not possible to have access to the single market without the ECJ, Mr Sefcovic stressed that “it’s not us proposing this measure and putting the access of Northern Ireland to the single market under risk”.
Mr Sefcovic said that he had “never heard this as a real concern coming from Northern Ireland stakeholders”.
However, polling for Queen’s University shows 45pc of people were concerned at the ECJ’s role – a figure which almost exactly correlates with the unionist vote.
Earlier this week, the Irish Independent reported that the EU has drawn up a hit list of goods which would be subject to tariffs in a trade war if Mr Johnson’s legislation passes into law.
Brussels sources said that items such as Scotch whisky and the transport of car components in and out of the English midlands and north, would be chosen in a calculated attempt to hurt Mr Johnson in areas where his party had made gains in the 2019 general election. Mr Sefcovic pointedly did not deny that such a course was being considered.
He said: “I wouldn’t speculate about any retaliatory measures because you know that we are not in the business of threatening everyone… but the reality is that the draft bill as it was presented was so unacceptable that of course if it is approved as it is we cannot exclude any action.”
Mr Sefcovic said the EU will not accept the UK’s suggestion that goods crossing the Irish Sea to stay in Northern Ireland should do so without any additional bureaucracy.
The UK government and the EU have similar proposals for introducing red and green lanes for goods coming into Northern Ireland, with goods staying in Northern Ireland using the green lane and goods at risk of going into the Republic going down the red line, with more paperwork and more checks.
However, there is still a gulf between the plans and in terms of extra checks and bureaucracy, Mr Sefcovic said “I think it’s always going to be something”.
“I think we can push it to the bare minimum if we would have very good cooperation from our UK counterparts,” he said, with perhaps a few dozen trucks checked each day under a ‘trusted trader’ scheme.