On Wednesday, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and his UK counterpart, Cabinet Minister David Frost, met in London for the latest meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee and the first meeting of the newly created Partnership Council under the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Following several weeks of failed technical and political talks on finding a compromise, Mr. Šefčovič acknowledged that there are still “substantial gaps” in the UK’s implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and that the EU’s “patience is wearing really, really thin.”
After weeks of public briefings against each other, this latest meeting between the two parties’ post-Brexit point men had broadly been advertised as a showdown to finally find common ground around the ongoing trade challenges surrounding the Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
However, speaking after the meeting, Mr. Šefčovič told the media assembled in London’s Europe House that there are still “substantial gaps” in the UK’s implementation of the 2020 EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement overall, and with regard to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in particular. As in previous meetings of the Joint Committee, the Commission continues to indict the UK Government of failing to uphold its treaty obligations on implementing the necessary checks and infrastructure on trade running from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Moreover, following repeated public statements by Mr. Frost and other Government Ministers on the unsustainability of the Protocol in recent weeks, the Commission has now also shifted to publicly accusing Whitehall of undermining the Protocol and the peace process so that it would not have to face the realities of an international agreement which it both negotiated and signed only months ago.
As such, it was to the disbelieve of the European Commission and EU Member States, when Mr. Frost, who was Boris Johnson’s lead Brexit negotiator, admitted in recent days that the necessary of checks on goods travelling across the Irish Sea had had “a bigger chilling effect than we thought on GB businesses wanting to move goods into Northern Ireland,” and that the EU was taking a “very purist” view that “makes no sense” to guarding the borders of its Single Market and Customs Union.
Six months after the UK’s full departure from the Single Market and Customs Union, the talks continue to hinge predominantly around finding an agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary checks (SPS) on fresh food and plants entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, as well as an EU ban on imports of chilled meats, like sausages and mince, from third countries – an issue the UK media and select politicians have dubbed the “sausage war.”
Speaking of the EU’s growing impatience and any potential follow up on its already-launched infringement procedure, Commissioner Šefčovič also reiterated that the Commission will “assess all options at our disposal,” including further legal action or cross-retaliation actions such as the UK’s suspension of participation in EU programs or trade tariffs, to ensure that the UK will fully implement the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Meanwhile, some limited progress was made on secondary areas, including on the supply of medication to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the movement of guide dogs between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as well as on VAT payable on second-hand cars.
According to a UK Government statement, Mr. Frost also provided the Commission with long-requested interim and long-term schedules for the Commission’s access to UK customs IT systems and databases. So far, the Commission had argued that it could not assess the level of trade and checks necessary, as it did not have the required access to the system.
Compliments of Vulcan Consulting – a member of the EACCNY.