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EU taking ‘very belligerent approach’ to issues caused by NI Protocol, Arlene Foster says

The Northern Ireland protocol was designed to avoid a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland.

DUP leader Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster
Image: Liam McBurney via PA Images

Updated Mar 5th 2021, 9:28 AM

THE EU HAS taken a “very belligerent approach” to the difficulties caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol post-Brexit, the DUP leader said.

Arlene Foster also said “something had to give”, and the UK had to take action and extend a grace period limiting red tape associated with the movement of goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

The First Minister added she was “not entirely surprised” by the EU’s threat to take legal action over the matter.

Earlier today, the EU warned that it will launch legal action “very soon” following the move by the UK to unilaterally delay implementation of part of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Foster said: “They have taken a very belligerent approach to the difficulties the protocol have caused for Northern Ireland.

“It was quite clear to me that there wasn’t going to be a meeting of minds. So the UK Government was going to have to take action, given that the grace period for goods in terms of supermarkets ended at the end of this month.”

Foster said: “The number of checks that are occurring between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are so disproportionate to the risk to the EU single market that it has become completely out of step with what the protocol was meant to do.”

“The protocol was meant to do two things. It was meant to protect the single market of the European Union, and it was meant to protect the Belfast agreement, and frankly, it is disproportionately doing one and damaging the other.”

Legal action

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said the announcement by the British Government on Wednesday had come as a “very negative surprise”.

The Cabinet Office Minister David Frost said the UK was extending a series of “grace periods” designed to ease trade between Northern Ireland – which remains in the EU single market for goods – and Great Britain while permanent arrangements are worked out.

It provoked a furious response in Brussels, with the EU accusing Britain of going back on its treaty obligations in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement intended to ensure there is no return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Sefcovic – who is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the agreement – said the European Commission was now working on “infringement proceedings” against the UK.

“We are currently preparing it and it would be really something coming to our table very soon. The most precise term I can give you is really very soon,” he said.

prime-ministers-questions British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has downplayed the dispute Source: House of Commons via PA Images

His warning came after Boris Johnson had sought to play down the dispute, saying the British Government was simply taking some “temporary and technical measures” to ensure that trade kept flowing.

“I’m sure with a bit of goodwill and common sense all these technical problems are eminently solvable,” he said yesterday.

However MEPs in the European Parliament have already taken steps to delay formal ratification of the wider trade and co-operation agreement between Britain and the EU pending the outcome of the latest row.

The Northern Ireland protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement was designed by the EU and UK to avoid a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland.

It means keeping Northern Ireland aligned to various EU rules, requiring checks on goods arriving into the region from Great Britain.

Ireland yesterday criticised the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend the grace period, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin saying he was “disappointed” by the decision”. 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that it “clearly undermines” previous commitments given last week.

In a statement yesterday evening, Martin said: “I am disappointed that the British Government has today announced unilateral action relating to the Protocol. Issues relating to the Protocol should be resolved by the UK and EU working together, through the Joint Committee.

“We have worked continuously in support of efforts to find sensible means of implementing the Protocol that respond to challenges identified. We will continue to do so, but unilateral action undermines the trust necessary to reach agreement.

“I call on the British Government to engage urgently with the European Commission, and to work towards agreed outcomes.”

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Meanwhile the White House has again stressed the support of new US President Joe Biden for the Good Friday Agreement which the protocol is intended to protect.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said: “President Biden has been unequivocal about his support for the Good Friday Agreement.

“It has been the bedrock of peace, stability and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland.”

Prior to last year’s election, Biden – who is intensely proud of his Irish roots – warned the agreement must not become a casualty of Brexit.

With reporting by Hayley Halpin

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