The European Union’s top official has warned that the Brexit trade deal has “real teeth” and Brussels will not hesitate to take action if Boris Johnson breaches its terms.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she hopes the EU will not have to use the measures contained within the agreement.
But she noted concerns in the EU that the UK has not yet fully complied with the terms of the earlier Brexit divorce deal and stressed that “vigilance” will be required in future.
Ms von der Leyen was addressing the European Parliament as MEPs prepared to vote on the Trade and Co-operation Agreement reached with Mr Johnson on Christmas Eve, which governs the way the UK and EU deal with each other.
The deal has been applied provisionally since January 1 but requires the approval of MEPs – who are not expected to oppose it – before it can be ratified.
Ms von der Leyen said: “We know it will not always be easy and there is a lot of vigilance, diligence and hard work ahead.
“But, while today’s vote is obviously an end, it is also the beginning of a new chapter.
“The choice is now whether today’s vote will be the high-water mark of the EU-UK relations for the next decades, or whether we see this as the foundation of a strong and close partnership based on our shared values and interests.
“Only history will tell what road is taken – although I hope for the latter.”
Relations between the UK and EU have been strained over the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the post-Brexit arrangements aimed at preventing a hard border with Ireland and was part of the divorce deal signed in January 2020.
Much of the disruption and controversy created by the protocol relates to the fact that Great Britain has left the Single Market for goods, while Northern Ireland remains in the EU regulatory zone.
That necessitates a significant number of documentary checks and physical inspections on agri-food goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
The UK has unilaterally extended grace periods covering areas of the economy including supermarket supplies and parcel deliveries to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, meaning post-Brexit checks are not yet fully applied – which has triggered a legal dispute with Brussels.
Ms von der Leyen said there is a need for “joint solutions” as “unilateral decisions will get us nowhere”.
She said there has been “some progress” in talks between commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and the UK’s Brexit Minister Lord Frost.
“In recent days and weeks, we have seen a new, constructive dynamic and we will continue to work closely with the UK to find constructive solutions that respect what was agreed,” she told MEPs.
“The next step is to mutually agree on compliance paths, with concrete deadlines and milestones.”
She added: “We need solutions, not soundbites, if we are to make the protocol work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Michel Barnier, who led the EU’s negotiations with the UK, said Brexit is a sign of political failure for the bloc.
“This is a divorce. It’s a warning, Brexit, and it’s a failure – a failure of the European Union,” he said.
“And we have to learn lessons from it as politicians here in the European Parliament, in council, in the Commission, in all of the capitals.
“Why did 52% of the British vote against Europe? There are reasons for that – social anger and tension which existed in many regions in the UK but also in many regions of the EU.
“Our duty is to listen and understand the feelings of the people.”
Austrian MEP Andreas Schieder, who led the European Parliament foreign affairs committee’s work on the UK-EU deal, said: “Brexit is a historic mistake. It was pushed through by irresponsible nationalism based on false promises and short-sightedness.
“Brexit is bad for Britain and Brexit is bad for Europe.
“The price is not paid by the Conservative millionaires but by the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Manfred Weber, the German leader of the centre-right EPP Group, said: “When I grew up, UK diplomacy was for me a symbol of credibility… Today, when we see the Northern Ireland Protocol implementation and how Johnson behaves, the message is ‘I don’t care, I don’t care even about my signature’.
“That’s the new Great Britain we have as a partner on our side.”
It was a view echoed by Green leader Philippe Lamberts, who said the Prime Minister is “not necessarily as good as his word” and “if we have violence in Northern Ireland it’s because of the lies of Prime Minister Johnson”.
Downing Street confirmed Mr Johnson spoke to his counterpart in Dublin on Tuesday evening, Taoiseach Micheal Martin, to discus Northern Ireland and the “importance of continued good relations between the UK and Ireland to the peace process”.
Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney followed up by suggesting solutions can be found to the outstanding issues around trade in Northern Ireland post-Brexit.
He said finding a way forward within the framework of the Northern Ireland Protocol will foster stability when it is “needed now more than ever”.