By Philippe Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union hopes to resolve Northern Ireland’s trade woes by the end of the year, the EU’s post-Brexit coordinator said on Tuesday, while warning London against unilateral suspension of the terms of the divorce agreement.
European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, who oversees the EU’s relations with Britain, has again rejected a British request to renegotiate the protocol governing Northern Ireland’s trade position.
However, he said he wanted to find solutions within the protocol to free the movement of goods to the British province.
“We have to do everything we can to resolve all outstanding issues before the end of the year, so this is the time frame within which we are working,” Sefcovic told reporters after a meeting with EU national ministers in Brussels.
He said the bloc wanted to focus on the practical issues faced by people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
Under the protocol, Britain agreed to leave certain EU rules in place in Northern Ireland and to accept checks on goods arriving from elsewhere in the UK, in order to preserve an open land border. with Ireland, an EU member state.
However, the arrangement effectively placed a border in the Irish Sea, angering pro-UK trade unionists who believe it separates them from the rest of the UK.
Sefcovic’s British counterpart, David Frost, has raised the possibility of triggering “article 16” of the protocol, which allows each party to dispense with their terms if they turn out to be unexpectedly damaging.
Sefcovic said it would be “extremely unnecessary” if Britain did, adding that the European Union would then consider all options in response.
“But, like I said, we really hope that we avoid this scenario because I believe that, above all, the best result for the people of Northern Ireland would be a solution and not new tensions or confrontations”, a he declared.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, John Chalmers, Sabine Siebold, Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Alison Williams)