Mistakes made in lead-up to attempt to trigger Article 16, EC vice-president says

16 February 2021, 22:26 | Updated: 16 February 2021, 22:28

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic. Picture: PA

By Megan White

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has said mistakes were made in the process leading up the EU's recent attempt to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Sefcovic said the commission "deeply regrets" how it handled the issue.

The vice-president came under scrutiny while appearing before Ireland's European Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Mr Sefcovic was accused of "splitting hairs" and failing to engage with questions from political representatives about the EU's decision to briefly trigger the controversial mechanism.

The EU backtracked on the move, which it said was due to efforts to restrict the export of Covid-19 vaccines out of the bloc.

Mr Sefcovic said the issue was resolved in a matter of hours.

"Article 16 was never activated and I can reassure you that the commission has learned the lesson and the commission will do its utmost to protect peace in Northern Ireland, as it has done throughout the entire Brexit process," he added.

"I really would like to underscore the fact that Ireland and Northern Ireland was not only on our minds all the time, but also in our hearts as well, and therefore I believe we achieved very good results."

The Northern Ireland Protocol requires regulatory and customs checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

However, the new arrangements have caused disruption since January 1.

Mr Sefcovic added: "I would like to stress that our commitment to the protocol is unwavering but we also have to understand that the implementation of the protocol is a shared responsibility.

"It must be always a two-way street.

"We also have to recognise the fact that we knew from the beginning that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the customs union and the single market is a massive operation, that it's not possible to prevent all the disruption.

"We could do our best and we are working on it to minimise the negative impact on the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"But it was quite obvious from the beginning that there will be teething problems and I believe that we can resolve them if we work very well together."

He said the European Commission is setting up a "clearing house" which deals with all the issues that affect the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Sefcovic also said the EU wants to see more information from UK authorities, adding it does not have real-time access to its IT system.

However, the EU official faced criticism from a number of political representatives, who accused him of not providing clarity around the bloc's decision.

On Tuesday evening, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she had discussed the protocol with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis.

She added: "When Maros Sefcovic conducts meetings here on Thursday, the people he meets must include those hardest hit & those who opposed the protocol rather than just cheerleaders for the rigorous implementation of the protocol."

Fianna Fail TD Dara Calleary said Northern Ireland and Ireland "wasn't in the hearts and minds" of those in the commission on January 29.

"We would be remiss of our job if we did not pursue what happened in the days leading in to January 29 and I am concerned that you haven't engaged with my colleagues who asked around those issues," he added.

"You say Article 16 was never activated - unfortunately vice president with complete respect you are splitting hairs as the signal was given that it would be activated - were it not for the intervention of the Taoiseach (Micheal Martin) and (Foreign Affairs) Minister (Simon) Coveney, it probably would have been.

"The giving of the signal was enough to do the damage."

Mr Calleary said there should be a formal mechanism involving the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive when Article 16 is being discussed at official level

Mr Sefcovic said their primary objective was to make sure that Europe was getting its fair share of vaccines.

"Really, we had the feeling that we are not always getting our fair share from the production which is made in the European Union," he added.

"Simply, we didn't have enough transparency of where the vaccines were going."

Fianna Fail Senator Lisa Chambers said the EU's mistake was "colossal" and had huge political implications for Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Ms Chambers added: "What we're still trying to figure out, and what we're very keen to hear from you this morning, is the events that led to you making that decision.

"Did you make that decision alone? Did you consult with your commission colleagues with the president with other commissioners, and when did you inform the other commissioners of your intention to invoke Article 16.

"That is the crucial piece of information that we require from you this morning."

Mr Sefcovic said it was a draft proposal which was "quickly corrected".

"It would be better not to engage in any more blame game and acknowledge a mistake was made," he added.