The UK’s unilateral moves to delay full implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol could make it “more tricky” to find permanent solutions to trade disruption, the EU has said.
The European Commission did not rule out ultimately agreeing to the extension of protocol exemptions announced by the UK this week, but it said those decisions should only be taken on a joint basis.
The Commission also confirmed that preparatory work on its legal action against the UK was continuing.
Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said if the EU was to demonstrate flexibility on protocol issues, the UK had to demonstrate it was prepared to implement commitments it had already agreed to.
Prior to this week’s controversy, the Commission had already expressed concern that border control posts at Northern Ireland ports were not yet fully operational and the EU had been unable to access UK IT systems to monitor protocol compliance.
“To be crystal clear, there are practical steps which the United Kingdom is supposed to implement that are related to the agreements that we found in December,” said Mr Mamer.
“And if people are talking about us trying to find an agreement on prolonging the grace periods, which must be a joint decision, a joint decision in the context of the joint committee, the UK also has to do its homework on those practical steps that it has to implement, that it should have implemented already some time ago for some of them and that it has committed to be delivering, to deliver very quickly on the others.
“We are looking to the UK to respect and to implement those commitments.”
Fellow Commission spokesman Daniel Ferrie told a media conference in Brussels that engagement to finding resolution was still ongoing.
“We’re working together in a constructive manner with the UK to find a solution to the issues that we’re currently facing,” he said.
“Last week, we actually had a joint committee together with the UK trying to find a way forward.
“It’s true that from Wednesday the situation has changed. It’s different now.
“But even though communication is primordial, it’s very much ongoing between us and the UK, in the spirit of trying to find a solution, even though it’s perhaps a bit more tricky now.”
Mr Ferrie said that the EU showed a “huge amount of constructive flexibility” when agreeing to the initial protocol grace periods last December.
“Now again, we’re faced with the same question from the UK side (on further extensions),” he said.
“We said, and you know this goes back already now a couple of weeks, that we’re willing to work on this, we’re willing to find further solutions.
“For that though we also need the UK to do its homework and to follow up on its promises to implement the protocol in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“Even if you look back to the last joint committee meeting, which was only last week, the UK again committed jointly to implement in full the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and again we reiterated that we were willing to find solutions to some of the outstanding issues.
“For that, I think Vice President (Maros) Sefcovic said this is a two-way street.
“That requires the UK also to do its side of its implementation. And for that we will be following that extremely closely.”
Mr Ferrie insisted the Commission was aware of the issues the protocol was causing for some businesses in Northern Ireland.
“We have spoken to businesses and civil society in Northern Ireland and also in Ireland over the past couple of days,” he said
“This is a really important part of what we’re doing, and the events over the past 48 hours doesn’t change our commitment to speaking to people in Northern Ireland and listening to their experiences.
“So just to underline again, we’re perfectly aware of the issues that people are faced with and we are trying our best to be constructive, to find solutions, but for that, of course, it requires commitment as well from the UK.”