European Court of Justice ‘can’t be cut out of Northern Ireland deal’, says Joao Vale de Almeida

·4-min read
EU ambassador to the UK Joao Vale de Almeida (left) said the bloc has gone to the limits of what it can do to resolve the problems of post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland (PA Archive)
EU ambassador to the UK Joao Vale de Almeida (left) said the bloc has gone to the limits of what it can do to resolve the problems of post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland (PA Archive)

Removing European Court of Justice oversight of the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland is an “impossibility”, the EU’s top diplomat in London warned on Thursday.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Joao Vale de Almeida hit back at Health Secretary Sajid Javid who insisted earlier “there should not be a role for the ECJ in any part of the UK…and that includes Northern Ireland.”

On the question of the ECJ’s role in Northern Ireland the Ambassador said: “For us it is not even a red line, it’s an impossibility to have at the same time the benefit of the access to the single market for goods for Northern Ireland …and to the UK market.

“There is no other territory in the world which can claim that opportunity.

“If you want to have access like Northern Ireland does to the single market for goods you need to play by the book, you play the rules. Any conflict that exists in the single market can go all the way up to the European Court of Justice…so one goes with the other.”

The stand off over the European court comes as UK and EU officials were starting preliminary talks on Thursday on a compromise to the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, which avoids a hard border on Ireland by keeping the region in both the EU single market and Britain’s own trading zone.

But the arrangement creates a trade border in the Irish Sea leading to costly and time-consuming checks on goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and inflaming tensions among unionists in the region. On Wednesday the European Commission’s Vice President Maros Sefcovic announced a series of proposals to ease 80 per cent of those checks and to remove blocks to the import of chilled meats and medicines.

However, Britain’s demand to end the ECJ’s role in the Protocol, and install a new independent arbitrator to rule on trade disputes, remains a major stumbling block.

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Javid signalled the UK’s aggressive approach to talks would continue, insisting that Brexit Minister Lord David Frost had made it clear in a speech on the Protocol in Lisbon on Tuesday that “one of the most important issues is to end the role of the ECJ in Northern Ireland”.

While Mr Vale de Almeida suggested there could be scope for other “mechanisms” to settle trade disputes, he added: “Ultimately if there is a conflict, if a jurisdiction has to say the final word on interpreting European law that is the European Court of Justice.”

Despite the disagreement over the ECJ, Mr Vale de Almeida told the Standard he was more “glass half full rather than half empty” on the prospect of a resolution and insisted the Commission’s proposals were a significant move.

“What we put up yesterday was a package of solutions that resulted from the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland,” he said. “It goes very far within the limits of the Protocol and the limits of European law. Let’s see how far we can go with our British friends and we have invited them for talks in Brussels as soon as they are ready. Let’s focus on the possible and there is a lot that is possible.”

But he made it clear that there was no appetite in Brussels to completely renegotiate the Protocol. “If you signed a contract a few months ago, a couple of years ago after very long negotiations during which the other side did not propose a credible alternative to what has been agreed…the ink is not even dry in this agreement and now you expect to renegotiate the whole concept? No.”

The Ambassador also conceded there was ‘impatience’ in European capitals at Britain’s latest attempt to rewrite the Brexit deal it signed up to in 2019. On Wednesday the Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar – who played a key role in securing that agreement - warned other countries not to do trade deals with the UK unless they could be sure Britain would stick to its commitments.

Boris Johnson’s former senior adviser Dominic Cummings has also suggested the Prime Minister didn’t understand the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement and that the UK always planned to renegotiate it after signing it.

Mr Vale de Almeida said: “I cannot hide that in our capitals sometimes people feel impatient about what they see as a permanent wish to come back on matters we thought were agreed. There is a feeling every now and then there may be a temptation on the British side to come back to issues that we thought had been settled.”

“But we need to be pragmatic and what we have on the table today is a great opportunity for the British government and Northern Ireland to seize and if we go forward on this we can see the light at the end of the tunnel…Let’s move on.”

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