EU Ambassador To UK: We Are "Emotionally" Invested In Making Northern Ireland Protocol Work
The European Union wants to eliminate "unnecessary problems" for people and businesses in Northern Ireland and will not take a "technocratic" approach to the province, the bloc's ambassador to the UK has said.
In an interview with PoliticsHome to mark Europe Day (May 9), Joao Vale de Almeida, who the government granted full diplomatic status this week, said UK-EU relations had improved in recent weeks and were now "in a better place" to find solutions for the issues facing Northern Ireland.
Since the post-Brexit trade deal came into effect on January 1, there have been rows over the impact of Brexit on the UK's shellfish trade, as well as an EU decision earlier this year to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to block vaccine exports, which it hastily reversed.
In March the EU launched legal proceedings against the government after it unilaterally extended grace periods for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, without the bloc's agreement.
Vale de Almedia said the "complex and intense" nature of the EU's relationship with the UK meant "there will always be issues and problems". However, he pointed to the ongoing discussions over the Northern Ireland Protocol as an example of thawing relations between the two sides.
The UK and EU are looking at ways of making the Protocol easier to follow for Northern Irish businesses, which have faced disruption since the post-Brexit arrangements came into effect.
The new barriers to trade, which Boris Johnson previously said would not arise, have caused frustration among loyalists which has contributed to violence on the streets in recent weeks.
"The good thing is, contrary to what the UK government did in early March, which was to take unilateral action, what I see now is a clear commitment to engage in talks and find consensual solutions, and I can guarantee that's our attitude too," he told PoliticsHome.
"The teams are talking, engaging, and I have reports that they are working hard, well and intensively".
However, while the EU has the "best goodwill" to find solutions with the UK, it "cannot accept solutions that put at risk the health and security of our consumers," he warned.
This is a reference to recent reports that the government wants the EU to relax Sanitary & Phytosanitary (SPS) rules for food and products of animal origin entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The UK argues trade across the Irish Sea poses little threat to the bloc's Single Market.
Under the terms of the Protocol, agreed during Brexit talks, Northern Ireland continues to follow swathes of EU rules in order to avoid a contentious hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Vale de Almedia, a Portugese diplomat who served as EU ambassador to the US, acknowleged that SPS rules was "a critical issue" for the bloc: "It's very difficult for us to say 'we can accept this, but not the other'. Either it guarantees health and safety, or it does not".However, he insisted that the EU "does not have a bureaucratic or technocratic approach" to Northern Ireland and that it was fully aware of the "fragile" state of the province.
"We are committed to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland," he said.
"We are emotionally and politically committeed to Northern Ireland. We have been sponsors and supporters of the Good Friday Agreement since the beginning and we are still there and attentive".
Vale de Almedia told PoliticsHome there was still a "gap in understanding" when it comes to the implications of Boris Johnson's decision to pursue a loose trading relationship with the bloc.
British exporters to the EU across a range of sectors, particularly those in meat, fish and dairy, have faced severe disruption since the beginning of the year as a result of new paperwork, which the Prime Minister had initially claimed were "teething problems".
In February, the UK's milk and cream exports to the continent were a whopping 96.4% down on twelve months previous, while chicken and beef were both down by nearly 80%, according to the most recent figures published by the Food and Drink Federation.
"Decisions have consequences and one needs to be aware of that," Vale de Almedia said. "What we need to distinguish between is temporary issues and structural issues that will not go away with time, which are linked to the UK decision to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union".Anger among French fishermen over reduced access to UK waters after Brexit led to a bizarre incident this week when 60 French boats gathered to protest at St Helier, Jersey's main port.
At the height of the tension, France threatened to cut off electricity supply to the UK dependency, while Prime Minister Johnson decided to send two Royal Navy ships to the port to "monitor" the situation.
The ambassdor sought to play down the incident, stressing it was quickly resolved and that the French boats and Royal Navy ships left the port within hours of arriving.
"This relationship should not be hijacked by accidents or flare-ups. It's for politicians and diplomats to make sure that is the case," Vale de Almedia told PoliticsHome.
He said he hoped the UK and EU were about to begin a "new, virtous cycle" in which they would strive to make their new relationship "work to the benefit of our citizens and businesses".
"There is a challenge for Whitehall and Le Berlaymont, the European Commission headquarters, to contribute to make sure this relationship work," he explained.
"It will require a lot of meetings, talking and sharing of notes. We are so close, we were close for long, and we will need to continue to be close if we want this new cycle to be a successful one".
Vale de Almedia swerved questions on the prospect of an independent Scotland and whether it would need a trade border with England if it joined the EU. Opponents of the Scottish National Party have argued this point as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pushes for another referendum.
However, he said the EU was "observing very attentively" developments in Scotland and has "a lot of respect for the debate and the democratic decisions that will be made".
"I wish to acknowledge the sympathy and support we get from many Scottish friends that are supportive of the EU and say I very much respect them," he said.