4 min read16 June
The European Union “really struggles to understand” delicate issues of identity in Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis has said, as the government continues to be at loggerheads with Brussels over post-Brexit arrangements for the province.
In an interview with PoliticsHome in Belfast, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland said “there is definitely a lack of understanding of the nuances and the complexities” among EU leaders.
Last week, talks between the UK and EU over how to simplify the Northern Ireland Protocol failed to produce a breakthrough, with both sides blaming each other for the impasse.
Brussels has accused Boris Johnson’s government of failing to the implement the treaty it signed up to last year as part of Brexit talks. Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice President, last week admittted the bloc’s patience with the UK was “wearing very, very thin”.
The government says the EU is taking an “over-legalistic” approach to the Protocol, arguing that the number of checks taking place on goods across the Irish Sea is disproportionate.
“The EU keep talking about being pragmatic and flexible, but they actually need to do it,” Lewis told PoliticsHome on Tuesday. “It’s all very well and good talking about it, but you need to show it”.
He added: “We have sent them well over a dozen papers and we haven’t heard back in a constructive way on any of them.
“We understand that they have a pragmatic idea for medicine movements from GB to NI but we only heard about that because journalist Tony Connelly tweeted about it. We haven’t seen a detailed paper on it yet”.
The row over the Northern Ireland Protocol is currently centred around an upcoming ban on chilled meat and sausages entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, in what’s been dubbed the “sausage war”.
The grace period agreed by the UK and EU to allow the trade to continue temporarily is set to expire at the end of the month. The government is expected to unilaterally extend the derogation if there is no breakthrough in talks, in a move that would anger the EU and risk retaliation.
Lewis said there was a “definite lack of understanding” among EU leaders of how the Northern Ireland Protocol in its current form was disrupting unionist identity in the province.
“The identity issue for unionists and loyalists is one they really struggle to understand,” he said, adding that he noticed it as a Home Office minister working on Europol with European counterparts before becoming the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Lewis said Sefcovic, who leads the EU’s talks with the UK over the Protocol, was a pragmatist who was genuinely trying to understand the complexities of Northern Ireland.
Lewis has rejected the claim that the government knowingly signed up to the checks and controls being requested by the EU when it agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol late last year.
He said the treaty, which to the anger of unionist politicians in Northern Ireland created a trade border in the Irish Sea, was actually “a policy document as much as anything else” and that the volume of paperwork being requested by the EU was “incongruous with being reasonable”.
At a meeting of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday morning, Cabinet Office minister David Frost, who oversees the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the bloc echoed this interpretation. He said there were “quite a lot of loose ends and open ended provisions for subsequent negotiation”.
Naomi Long, Alliance leader and Northern Ireland’s justice minister, called on both sides to show flexibility but said the UK government’s “really bad behaviour” had damaged trust.
“The inability of the UK government to treat their partners with respect, to follow the Protocol, and to use the Joint Committee to negotiate a change in a way that is agreed by all parties is squandering massive amounts of political capital,” she told PoliticsHome.
“They lied to people in Northern Ireland when they said there would be no checks in the Irish Sea. They negotiated a Protocol that required checks in the Irish Sea and left people feeling incredibly betrayed”.
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