Remarks by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič at the press conference on the Protocol of Ireland / Northern Ireland

Good morning.

On Monday, the UK government tabled legislation, confirming its intention to unilaterally break international law.

More precisely, to break an agreement that protects peace and stability in Northern Ireland – an agreement that we reached together only two years ago.

Let there be no doubt: there is no legal, nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement. Opening the door to unilaterally changing an international agreement is a breach of international law as well.

Let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.

This UK bill is extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK.

It has created deep uncertainty and casts a shadow over our overall cooperation. All at a time when respect for international agreements has never been more important.

That is why the Commission has today decided to take legal action against the United Kingdom for not complying with significant parts of the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland.

We have been withholding this legal action over the last year because we wanted to create a constructive atmosphere to find solutions. The UK government’s decision has left us with no choice but to act.

First, we are proceeding a step further with the infringement process we launched in March 2021 regarding, for instance, the movement of agri-food. If the UK does not reply within two months, we may take them to the Court of Justice.

Second, we are launching two new infringements against the UK:

  • One for failing to carry out the necessary controls at border control posts in Northern Ireland, by ensuring adequate staffing and infrastructure.
  • And one for failing to provide the EU with essential trade statistics data to enable the EU to protect its Single Market.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Protocol was the solution agreed with the UK government to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protect the integrity of the EU’s Single Market.

We know that there are some practical difficulties in implementing it. We have said so openly.

That is why my team and I had been engaging extensively with all stakeholders on the ground, resulting in a set of solutions put forward in October – showing genuine and unprecedented flexibility.

For example, our proposals would:

  • Reduce sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls by more than 80 percent;
  • They would cut customs paperwork in half;
  • Create an express lane for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland;
  • Simplify certification: a single three-page document for a whole lorry full of different goods;
  • And they would allow even the movement of certain goods that would otherwise be restricted, such as chilled meat, like sausages.

This is a solid offer, making a tangible difference on the ground.

Today we have fleshed out these proposals, proving they can work and they can work fast. We have even published the draft certificates that businesses would need to fill out – showing just how simple and easy they are to fill in.

Our proposals are all about simplification and therefore in stark contrast with for instance, a dual regulatory regime proposed by the UK.  A dual set of rules – EU and UK – would lead to a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy, enough to burry a small business in Northern Ireland that wants to profit from access to both, the UK’s internal and EU’s Single Market at once.

So once again: permanent solutions and simple operations of the Protocol proposed by the EU – versus – constant uncertainty with UK Ministers having an open hand to change the rules on a whim.

We want Northern Ireland to embrace all the benefits of this unique position. Because our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland is unshakable.

Despite today’s legal action, our door remains open to dialogue. We want to discuss these solutions with the UK government. Given that the UK hasn’t sat down at the table with us since February, I think it’s high time to show some political will to find joint solutions.

The UK has stated that for us to talk, the EU must be willing to change the Protocol. On the contrary, we have always said that our package of proposals has never been a take-it-or-leave-it offer. It can evolve.

But it is not an unconditional offer. There must be safeguards included that protect the Single Market. Because the risks for our market are real, not theoretical.

And the conditions, which allow Northern Ireland to access the EU’s Single Market for goods, are not for the UK to change. It is simply legally – and politically – inconceivable that the UK government decides unilaterally what kind of goods can enter our Single Market.

This is not a path that two partners, standing shoulder to shoulder when facing global challenges, should forge.

I am convinced that with political will we can find solutions for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.

But this must be done jointly.

Thank you.