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Top EU official tells Oireachtas: 'We made a mistake but please put it in perspective'

European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič addressed TDs and Senators today.

Maroš Šefčovič addressed Oireachtas members today
Maroš Šefčovič addressed Oireachtas members today
Image: Oireachtas TV

Updated Feb 16th 2021, 4:47 PM

THE VICE PRESIDENT of the European Commission has told TDs and Senators that “mistakes were made” in Brussels regarding the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol but that lessons have been learned and that Europe’s commitment to Ireland was not in doubt. 

Maroš Šefčovič today addressed the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, and said the commission would do its utmost to protect peace in Northern Ireland going forward.

However, despite being asked on numerous occasions, he did not outline who made the decision that caused such an outcry. 

His appearance came after the controversial move from the European Commission to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol late last month, in a row over the supply of vaccines to Europe. 

The move blindsided governments in Dublin and London, which could have meant checks between the six and 26 counties. EU officials quickly rescinded the plan the same evening and acknowledged it as a mistake. 

In an interview with EuroNews’ Shona Murray yesterday, Šefčovič said that “we apologised for it, and we are sorry” in relation to the proposal to trigger Article 16, and said that there was a need to dial down “heated rhetoric” around the problems with carrying out post-Brexit checks in Northern Ireland. 

Speaking before the Oireachtas Committee today, the European Commission vice president reiterated this apology while being pressed on how the decision was made and who exactly made that decision.

“The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process and we deeply regret that,” he said.

“But in a matter of three hours, we got it right. Article 16 was never activated. I can assure you the commission has learned a lesson and the commission will do its utmost to protect the peace in Northern Ireland.”

Šefčovič said the proof that the European Commission will take the best measures going forward comes from its track record. 

“I think that the best answer is our track record, unwavering support, political, economic and financial to the peace process since the Belfast agreement was signed and agreed upon,” he said. “Also the way in how we conducted the entire Brexit negotiation process.”

He said that during the entire Brexit negotiation process, Ireland was “in our minds all the time, and in our hearts”.

The top commission official said that work is ongoing with UK counterparts and Irish ministers to regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

“We want to listen, we want to learn, and we want to work on solutions,” Šefčovič said.

“It must be always a two-way street. We also have to recognise the fact that we knew from the beginning that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the Customs Union and the Single Market is a massive operation, that it’s not possible to prevent all the disruption.

We could do our best and we are working on it to minimise the negative impact on the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland. But it was quite obvious from the beginning that there will be the teething problems and I believe that we can resolve them if we work very well together.

Speaking to RTÉ News this afternoon, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that “Šefčovič has been a real friend of Ireland here”.

Coveney outlined that himself and Šefčovič will be meeting stakeholders on Brexit on Thursday and that the European Commission Vice President will be doing the same with Michael Gove in the context of stakeholders in Northern Ireland. 

“He will then follow that up with a specialised Committee to focus on the protocol and its implementation and what flexibilities may be possible in ensuring that implementation is as smooth as possible and follow that up again by a Joint Committee probably early next week,” Coveney said.

“There’s a lot of commitment coming from Vice President Šefčovič and the European Commission to focus on the Irish issues, north and south, linked to the implementation of the protocol, to first of all ensure that it’s fully implemented by both sides and secondly to look at using the flexibilities within the confines of the protocol to the greatest extent possible to respond to genuine implementation issues that have emerged over the last six weeks,” he said. 

A “colossal” mistake

lisa chambers Lisa Chambers Source: Oireachtas TV

Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers said that the move from the European Commission was a “colossal” mistake with huge political implications. 

“What we’re trying to figure out is the events that led to the making of that decision,” she said. “When did you inform the other commissioners of your intention to invoke Article 16?”

Šefčovič said the decision came through a “primary objective” of the European Commission to make sure it got its fair share of vaccines. 

“We are a major producer of vaccines in the EU,” he said. “We felt we weren’t getting our fair share. We didn’t have enough transparency over where these vaccines were going. 

This was the thrust of the proposal on the table. The mistake was made… We made a mistake, we acknowledge it, we corrected it. We made a mistake but please take it into perspective how close the relationship of the EU and all member states is… and the support Ireland and Northern Ireland was always getting from the EU. 

The European Commission vice president said that Europe has shown itself very loyal to Ireland and Northern Ireland, and that the Northern Ireland Protocol was the “only solution” to protect peace and stability while avoiding a hard border.

Labour’s Brendan Howlin said Europe’s previous commitments to Ireland “underscored the degree of shock” with the decision, and that the harm done “continues”. 

brendan howlin Brendan Howlin Source: Oireachtas TV

“How can such a fundamental thing happen without political awareness of it?” Howlin asked. “Who signed off on it, politically? We need to understand that.”

Šefčovič reiterated that it was a “draft proposal that was quickly corrected”. He also said that there shouldn’t be a “blame game”. 

Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary put it to Šefčovič that he was “splitting hairs” by saying Article 16 was never triggered, when every indication had been given that it would be. 

He said it was vital for accountability to be provided over who made the order to trigger Article 16 and reassurances that it wouldn’t happen again. He said the protocol needed to be able to withstand changes in personnel at the highest levels, and that safeguards needed to put in place in this regard. 

“Our job is parliamentary scrutiny,” Calleary said. “We’ve a responsibility to get to the detail of what happened on and the days leading up to 29 January. It’s not a blame game, we’re doing our job.”

dara calleary Dara Calleary Source: Oireachtas TV

Šefčovič replied that the move was made in the context of the situation concerning vaccines in Europe. 

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“I want to make it 100% clear that this article was never activated,” he said. “There was immediate communication between President [Ursula von der Leyen] and the Taoiseach and Minister Coveney.”

‘Early warning system’

Speaking to the same committee last week, Minister with responsibility for EU Affairs Thomas Byrne said that the government is seeking an “early warning system” on the use of Article 15 of the Northern Ireland protocol on Brexit. 

He said the government is continuing to engage on multiple levels with the European Commission and the UK Government to find a resolution.

Byrne added: “What the Government wants fundamentally is an early warning system to be put in place.

“There is a view, and it’s a risky view, that, yes, the Commission made a mistake, yes the Commission acknowledged its mistake, and that is everything solved now.

“Clearly that’s not the case because the consequences of this are continuing.”

Asking questions today, Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond asked about the “crucially important” early warning system. 

neale richmond Neale Richmond Source: Oireachtas TV

“Everyone can make mistakes but it’s how you learn from them that’s important,” he said.

Šefčovič said that a new mechanism was being set up within the Commission that would respect fully the elements of the Northern Ireland protocol while keeping all parties informed of developments. 

“Ireland will always be consulted on these issues,” he added. 

The European Commission vice president added that the responsibility for shortages of any supplies to supermarkets in Northern Ireland rests with the UK, as such problems were foreseen well in advance. 

He said the protocol was the solution that would solve these problems in future, and that any problems with it should be ironed out. 

With reporting by Hayley Halpin and Press Association

What is Article 16, what does it mean and why has it been causing so much hassle? That’s what we explored last week’s episode of The Explainer – listen below or wherever you get your podcasts.

Source: The Explainer/SoundCloud

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Sean Murray

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