The vice president of the European Commission has said unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol are being listened to.
Maros Sefcovic was told that not a single unionist in the Stormont Assembly consented to the post-Brexit mechanism.
Appearing at a meeting of the Executive Office’s scrutiny committee, Mr Sefcovic heard concerns over the “democratic deficit” in how the protocol was negotiated between the UK and EU with no voice from Northern Ireland, and that it undermined the make-up of the UK.
Demonstrations have been held by loyalists across Northern Ireland against the protocol and legal challenges have been taken against it.
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said unionists “do not, will not, have not and never will consent to the provisions of the protocol”.
“It has been imposed upon our heads, perhaps in dalliance with the government at Westminster, but let me assure you not a single unionist representative in this place endorses the provision of the protocol,” he said.
Mr Stalford also criticised the “rigorous and aggressive regime of checks”.
Mr Sefcovic said he recognised Mr Stalford’s concerns but rejected a claim that the EU was “trying to use Northern Ireland to punish the UK”.
“That is not so sir, I can absolutely assure you of that,” he said.
“We have been having very hard negotiations with the UK, and it was not because we wanted to punish the UK, it was because the choice the UK government have decided upon, to leave the customs union, to leave the SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) area, to leave the single market.
“Therefore the perimeters of the Brexit design in London was very tough to accommodate.
“We have been looking for the solution that was squaring the circle and we did it with open hearts and the best possible intention and that’s the position we have until now.
“Therefore we are looking for all the flexibilities, for all the most creative solutions to the problems that have been created by Brexit, and we will continue to do so.”
DUP MLA Diane Dodds asked why the EU persisted in “ignoring” unionist concerns.
In reply, Mr Sefcovic said the EU and UK were in agreement that the protocol in “no way violates the constitutional order of the UK”.
He said the EU took unionist concerns “very seriously” and highlighted that MLAs would get a vote on whether to continue elements of the protocol in 2024.
Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart asked Mr Sefcovic what he was doing to allay the concerns of unionists.
Mr Sefcovic said the EU had demonstrated through the peace programme that “we are your friend”.
“For us, peace and stability, no hard border are absolutely fundamental principles which should be respected throughout the negotiations and which are paramount for us also today,” he said.
“If it comes to the issue of democratic deficit, our negotiating partner is the UK and we have to respect that because we are respecting the constitutional arrangement of the UK, but I am now talking to you, I am ready to be your partner, I am ready to engage with you when you feel this would be appropriate.”