UK's Gove meets EU's Sefcovic for talks on Northern Ireland border

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove on Wednesday (Jan 3) will demand that the European Union takes steps to ensure the smooth flow of trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, amid rising tensions in the region.

In a meeting with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, Mr Gove will call for post-Brexit grace periods for trade in Northern Ireland – which were due to expire at the end of March – to be extended.

On Tuesday, he condemned the EU’s threat to impose border checks on Northern Ireland, warning it had provoked anger on all sides of the political divide.

“Trust has been eroded, damage has been done,” Mr Gove told the House of Commons.

“It was a serious mistake from the Commission, I think everyone recognises that now.”

Faced with a shortage of coronavirus vaccines, the EU threatened on Friday to limit exports from the bloc by invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol – part of the Brexit agreement – and imposing border controls.

It retreated within hours, after the plan emerged and drew condemnation from both unionists and nationalists as well as the Irish government.

The move threatened to undermine one of the most controversial parts of the Brexit deal – the avoidance of border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In four years of negotiations, the EU had made avoiding a hard border a precondition for any accord, saying it was necessary to protect the peace process.

‘Menacing behaviour’

Updating members of Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Gove was blunt about the damage the EU had done, saying the European Commission in Brussels had “mucked up”.

“In recent days, we’ve seen an increase in community tension,” Mr Gove said.

“We will work over coming days to fix the difficulties on the ground.”

Officials from both the EU and the UK have temporarily halted some checks at the region’s ports after what Mid & East Antrim Council called “an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour”.

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That included “graffiti within the local area referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol and describing port staff as targets”.

The EU told staff working in Northern Ireland not to go to work on Tuesday, a day after the region stopped physical inspections of products of animal origin at the ports of Belfast and Larne amid security concerns.

Document checks will continue and the measure will be kept under review, Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Ministry said in a statement.

“It is obvious that for us the first and utmost priority is the safety of people,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

“We are in contact with the UK authorities on this matter, both from a security perspective and from the perspective of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement.”

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‘Ugly development’

The threats are a “sinister and ugly development”, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told reporters in Dublin.

“We will be doing everything we possibly can to assist and to defuse the situation,” he said.

Democratic Unionist Party lawmaker Ian Paisley linked the growing tensions to the operation of the protocol, which effectively keeps the UK region of Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union after Brexit and entails checks on goods coming across the Irish Sea.

Unionists such as Mr Paisley have opposed the protocol because it draws a customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland.

“I condemn all threats to staff outrightly,” Mr Paisley said.

“The protocol was bound to end in tears.”

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