Europe will not allow Ireland to be singled out in the fallout if negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol end in failure, an EU commissioner has insisted.
Ireland’s representative in the European Commission, Mairead McGuinness, was commenting on the potential for the country to be disproportionately affected if there is a breakdown of the Brexit trading arrangement designed to prevent a hardening of the island’s land border.
Ms McGuinness also said UK and EU relations would be in a “very, very difficult place” if there was any truth in claims made by former Downing Street chief advisor Dominic Cummings that the UK Government always intended to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The EU and UK are set for an intense round negotiations in the coming weeks after Brussels last week published a range of proposals aimed at cutting the red tape the protocol has imposed on moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
However, the plan did not address a key UK demand – the removal of the oversight function of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the operation of the protocol.
UK Brexit Minister David Frost has warned that his Government will be prepared to suspend aspects of the protocol – by triggering its Article 16 mechanism – if it cannot reach agreement with the bloc on changing how it operates.
That has raised the prospect of the EU taking retaliatory action, potentially in the form of further restrictions on trade with the UK.
Ms McGuinness told RTE One’s The Week In Politics it was more important to focus on getting a successful outcome to the negotiations than the “what ifs” that may materialise if talks break down.
However, she added: “At the end of the day if things break down and if there is a sense in which the United Kingdom is not prepared to agree to existing commitments or to reach an agreement on a new deal then of course Europe will have to act in Europe’s best interest. So I think that that’s clear.
“As to the specific issues or where we might take action, I mean there are many ways to do it, we do not have the lists now.”
Ms McGuinness was asked whether Ireland would be the member state hardest hit if the protocol talks end in failure.
“There certainly is a reality and my colleagues in Europe and around the commission understand Ireland is in a very vulnerable position, because if things go wrong we could find ourselves in a difficult situation,” she said.
“I don’t find any sense amongst the member states that they want Ireland to be singled out or to be made feel vulnerable.
“But I would put a question to the UK side – I hope that’s not their intention, I hope they’re not using Ireland, as opposed to Northern Ireland, as a way to, if you like, reconfigure things, because that won’t wash well either.”
Last week, Mr Cummings suggested the Westminster Government had always intended to ditch the protocol, which it signed up to as part of the 2020 Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Ms McGuinness said that claim had left her “speechless”.
“How do you answer, if that is the fact?” she said.
“How do you deal politically and in a democracy and in diplomacy, if that is a fact?
“If Dominic Cummings’ tweets are true, then I think we are in a very, very difficult place. So from my side, representing the European Commission, we have to believe in good faith, because if we act in good faith, we solve problems where they are there.
“What troubles me is that sometimes on the UK side, the minute there is a solution they find a problem in that solution, and that’s not progress. That’s going back and forth to the detriment of people in Northern Ireland.”