Foster brands EU ‘tone deaf’ over handling of NI Protocol

First Minister Arlene Foster has slammed EU officials as “tone deaf” in their handling of the Northern Ireland Protocol, following what she branded a “hugely disappointing” meeting.

The DUP leader and her Sinn Féin counterpart, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attended a meeting of the UK and EU Joint Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

While Ms O’Neill felt there had been constructive engagement on the issues, Mrs Foster took a different view.

“There hasn’t been a breakthrough and I can’t say I’m surprised, given the attitude of the European Union to the protocol,” she told UTV.

“It was a hugely disappointing meeting.

“Even the minimal extensions to the grace period which Michael Gove had asked for were not granted and therefore it seems that the EU’s answer to all of this is more protocol.

“Of course, being tone deaf to what is actually happening in terms of trade and in terms of identity here in Northern Ireland.”

  • Video: Arlene Foster on the UK/EU meeting

The protocol was designed by the EU and UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

It achieves this by moving regulatory and customs checks to the Irish Sea, with goods imported into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK subject to a range of new processes.

This has caused some disruption to trade since it came into effect on 31 December disruption that could intensify significantly on 1 April when a grace period currently limiting the bureaucracy applied to imported supermarket goods ends.

The Government has asked the European Commission for extensions to that grace period - and a series of other exemptions now in operation - until January 2023 to provide space to find long-term solutions to the issues.

Ms O’Neill said both sides, the UK and EU, had used the meeting to restate their commitment to the protocol and to finding “practical solutions” to the challenges that had emerged.

“This isn’t about unionists or nationalists, this is about Brexit and its economic consequences – all of which are dire,” the deputy First Minister told UTV.

“We’ve said that from the very outset of the Brexit debate.

“However, today’s meeting is a very practical meeting, it’s a meeting to find solutions to the issues that have been identified.”

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic have both said they intend to fix the protocol rather than ditch it.

While there are new checks on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, it also offers Northern Ireland-based traders unfettered access to sell into the GB market, as well as the EU single market.

Advocates of the arrangements believe this dual market access offers a significant economic opportunity for Northern Ireland.

However, Mrs Foster has said damage is being caused to citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland and that must be addressed.

In a joint statement following Wednesday’s meeting, Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic said: “The parties acknowledged the importance of joint action to make the protocol work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

“In that spirit, the EU and UK reiterated their full commitment to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and to the proper implementation of the protocol.

“The UK and the EU underlined their shared commitment to giving effect to those solutions agreed through the Joint Committee on December 17 2020, without delay.”

The statement added: “The UK noted that it would provide a new operational plan with respect to supermarkets and their suppliers, alongside additional investment in digital solutions for traders in accordance with the protocol.”

A further meeting of the joint committee is set to take place to “provide further steers and where appropriate approvals”.