The European Commission has pledged to find pragmatic solutions to trade disruption caused by post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Vice president Maros Sefcovic is to establish a consultative group giving Belfast businesses struggling with the Northern Ireland Protocol access to powerful voices in Brussels.
On Thursday, he met company and civic society representatives to discuss implications of onerous paperwork requirements on suppliers from the rest of the UK which have delayed some Irish Sea shipments.
🇪🇺🇬🇧 Constructive meetings with business and civic society in NI on challenges they face on the ground. Will help guide Joint Committee work. Together with @MichaelGove, committed to the proper implementation of IE/NI Protocol and finding pragmatic solutions. Next JC on 24 Feb.
— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) February 18, 2021
The DUP has vowed to scrap the mechanism ensuring there is no hard border on the island of Ireland and leader, and First Minister Arlene Foster expressed disappointment that Mr Sefcovic did not meet more unionists.
The vice-president said he enjoyed “constructive” meetings on challenges people faced on the ground which would help guide future assessment of the protocol by the EU and UK.
He promised: “Together with Michael Gove, (I am) committed to the proper implementation of Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol and finding pragmatic solutions.”
Solutions have already been found for problems with mixed lorry loads, but a cliff edge end of soft-touch regulation for sectors like supermarkets sending goods to the region is looming.
Traders have called for pragmatism and political will on the part of the EU, which is part of a Joint Committee with the UK overseeing the protocol’s workings.
They expect to have greater access to powerful voices in Brussels to voice their concerns in future.
The Commission vice president and Cabinet Office Minister Mr Gove held virtual discussions with business representatives.
Mr Sefcovic told BBC Newsline: “Northern Ireland business leaders want us to move in a swift manner and fast and I am ready to do that.
“I hope we will be working as constructively as we were in October, November and December when we clinched an important agreement on trade and cooperation.”
He said he hoped there could be a “new chapter” in the EU’s relationship with the UK.
Protocol arrangements keeping Northern Ireland in line with the EU’s Single Market regulations have heightened political tensions.
Unionists and loyalists are angered at the imposition of economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Mrs Foster said: “I am somewhat disappointed to hear of the make up of the civic society group that met today.
“There were one or two unionists on it.”
We need a permanent solutions to the problems created by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@DUPleader) February 17, 2021
Among those present were senior Orange Order member Mervyn Gibson from East Belfast, who has argued that the protocol must go.
Mrs Foster added: “We shall wait and see whether Mr Sefcovic has listened to the concerns of unionism…we will only find out when we see what actions he takes.”
Stormont’s Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy said those reservations were listened to.
He added bodies like the Joint Committee between the EU and UK had been put in place in anticipation of difficulties with the protocol.
The Committee is due to meet next week.
Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhan Connolly represents larger firms like supermarkets.
He said Thursday’s important meeting must be the start of a comprehensive dialogue ensuring the EU and UK hear business concerns and use their homegrown expertise in finding solutions.
Mr Connolly said the April 1 end of a number of grace periods limiting the extent of red tape required under the protocol, could heap “unprecedented pressure” on supply chains.
He warned traders and retailers need stability, certainty, simplicity and affordability.
Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber representing businesses, said agreeing better ties with Brussels could help smooth challenges and reach more compromises.
“We agreed to keep the conversation going, with the appropriately powerful vehicle to address the wider challenges that we are raising.”
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods.
Products entering from Great Britain must comply with strict EU rules on animal and plant health.
Traders must complete new processes and checks to ship animal-based food products and plants across the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland.