Tue. Oct 4th, 2022

Brussels, 2 September 2022


Dear Mr Chairman,

Members of the Committee,

Members of the Association,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here with you for this year’s Conference.

The British-Irish Association has long provided an invaluable forum to engage on matters of mutual interest, and to support a strong bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The Irish poet and writer William Butler Yeats, extolling the beauty of Oxford, once wrote: “One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all like an opera.”

Speaking as someone who has followed the process closely over the past years, events surrounding Brexit have been much less about the harmony of opera, and much more about its drama. So, while I will not be singing for you now, I would like to take this opportunity to set out how I see things today.

As a starting point, it is clear that the nature of EU-UK relations has fundamentally changed since 2016 when the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union.

While respecting this choice, the EU has always sought to build a positive and stable relationship with the UK, based on partnership and trust.

Such a relationship between two democratic societies is of growing strategic importance and in our mutual interest.

We are partners with many shared challenges, where protecting our values and principles, and upholding the rule of law is imperative – not least in responding to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Here, the EU and the UK are working exceptionally well together to support Ukraine, protect its people, and deal with the war’s wide-ranging consequences, from energy to food supply. Unity is our strength. It should remain the case.

Our relationship is now founded on two agreements: the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which we negotiated together, agreed and ratified.

Our partnership, and the trust underpinning it, requires – and depends on – these legally binding commitments being respected.

There are no two ways about this.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you all know, the EU is at its heart a peace project. Born out of the ashes of the Second World War, we have sought deeper economic integration and political cooperation between our peoples and Member States to ensure our common peace and prosperity endure and thrive.

That is why the EU is fully committed to supporting peace in Northern Ireland and fostering reconciliation between communities.

Common membership of the EU has brought countries closer together – you need only look at how it helped facilitate the strengthening of the Anglo-Irish relationship. It undoubtedly had an immensely positive impact on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Here, I would like to pay tribute to the work of Lord David Trimble, who sadly passed away in July. His role in securing the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and in building peace in Northern Ireland is an enduring legacy that shall never be forgotten.

Back in 1989, the then European Commission President Jacques Delors was eager to contribute to the peace process. It was his firm belief that we could not sit idly by, while deep divisions were costing lives.

President Delors worked closely with Northern Ireland’s three Members of the European Parliament at the time: Jim Nicolson of the Ulster Unionist Party, Reverend Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party, and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

As a first step, the Commission became a contributor to the International Fund for Ireland, for which it has provided funding of well over 300 million euro over the years.

The Commission then followed through on its commitment by setting up a task force to help organise a broad consultation of grassroots organisations from both communities and both sides of the border. This resulted in the first PEACE programme in 1995.

Since then, the EU has invested more than 1.5 billion euro in a series of cross-border cooperation programmes, supporting actions to bring communities in Northern Ireland and in the border regions of Ireland closer together.

More recently, the Commission adopted the PEACE PLUS programme, providing – together with the British and Irish governments – more than 1 billion euro for Northern Ireland and the border counties between now and 2027.

So, while the United Kingdom may have left the European Union, the EU’s commitment to peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland remains unwavering. In the words of John Hume, the EU is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution.

Indeed, protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland has been a central aim for the EU throughout the Brexit journey. The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland represents the best way we could find to achieve that aim together with the UK, in response to the type of Brexit chosen by the UK government.

The Protocol, an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, protects the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, while also protecting the integrity of the EU Single Market.

The Protocol also creates countless opportunities for Northern Ireland thanks to the unique access that its businesses continue to have to the EU Single Market for goods. These are tangible benefits.

At the same time, the EU has from the beginning shown genuine understanding for the practical difficulties in implementing the Protocol on the ground.

Based on our extensive engagement with a wide range of stakeholders in Northern Ireland, the Commission put forward last October far-reaching proposals addressing issues raised by people and businesses. These would:

  • create an express lane for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland;
  • by reducing sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls by more than 80 percent;
  • simplifying certification, with a single three-page document for a whole lorry full of different goods;
  • cutting customs formalities in half;
  • while also allowing the movement of certain goods that would otherwise be restricted, such as sausages.

We have sketched out our proposals in great detail before the summer in order to show that they can be implemented quickly.

These proposals are about simplifying and facilitating trade and are therefore in stark contrast with, for instance, the dual regulatory regime advocated by the UK. In addition, they are not a “take it or leave it” offer, as we believe that only joint solutions can work.

These proposals have however never been seriously picked up by my counterparts. In short, they were dismissed without consideration. The UK has not even engaged in any meaningful discussions with us since February.

Instead, we are now faced with the UK government’s continuing determination to push forward the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, set to disapply core elements of the Protocol.

This unilateral action is naturally of great concern to the EU.

It is not for the UK government alone to change our bilateral agreement and modify the conditions under which goods can enter the EU’s Single Market and reach our consumers.

This is simply legally and politically inconceivable.

This clear breach of international law is extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK.

Pursuing the Bill – in the face of abundant criticism in the UK and further afield – also means deep uncertainty. Because Northern Ireland now enjoys and is benefitting from its unique access to the EU’s Single Market. The UK would surely not want to take further measures that would call these opportunities into question.

Only joint solutions can create the legal certainty and predictability that people and businesses in Northern Ireland need and deserve.

I am convinced that with political will and commitment, we can still explore the full potential of our far-reaching proposals and find a way forward.

This call to the UK government to engage with us has been clear for over a year. And it still stands – also vis-à-vis the incoming UK Prime Minister and government.

Further unilateral action may give the impression to many in the EU that the UK leadership is not that interested in cooperation with the EU.

For my part, I stand ready to work intensively and constructively with any new UK interlocutor to find a common solution within the Protocol. The EU will never leave the table.

Because as John Hume said: “When people are divided, the only solution is agreement”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world is an increasingly complex and challenging place. And at a time when Western unity is so important, we need cooperation and action that strengthen our bonds, not weaken them.

To return to Yeats, he once wrote: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric.” Let us put the quarrel and the rhetoric to one side, and find common ground to build a better future in an uncertain world.

Thank you once again for the invitation to address the Conference today. And now I look forward to your questions and comments.

Source – EU Commission