Turning the European Court of Justice into a Brexit “bogeyman” threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the EU single market for goods, and removing it from the protocol treaty is “an impossibility,” according to senior EU figures.
European Commissioner for Financial Services Mairead McGuinness and EU Ambassador to the U.K. João Vale de Almeida pushed back Thursday against British demands for the ECJ’s role to be cut out of the 2019 treaty, which created a regulatory border on goods moving into Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The arrangement, opposed by the region’s British unionists, keeps the land border with the Republic of Ireland barrier-free and gives Northern Ireland businesses free rein to keep trading with the EU27.
In London, the ambassador told the Evening Standard that U.K. Brexit chief David Frost’s anti-ECJ demands could lead, if pursued to their logical end, to Northern Ireland’s involuntary ouster from free access to the world’s largest trading bloc. Most voters in Northern Ireland rejected Brexit, and its business leaders solidly back single-market access.
Vale de Almeida said trying to disconnect the court’s jurisdiction from the EU single market was “not even a red line, it’s an impossibility.”
“If you want to have access, like Northern Ireland does, to the single market for goods, you need to play by the book,” he was quoted as saying. “Any conflict that exists in the single market can go all the way up to the European Court of Justice … One goes with the other.”
Ireland’s member of the European Commission, McGuinness, said she wasn’t surprised to hear Frost elevate the U.K.’s anti-ECJ rhetoric to the top of its list of demands in the past week — but billed it as a fabricated problem designed to hamper practical progress.
“It is in the interests of Northern Ireland that their place in the single market is protected by the ECJ,” McGuinness told RTÉ radio in Dublin. “For some reason the ECJ is suggested as being the bogeyman. But the ECJ is the protector of the single market to which Northern Ireland would have unique and privileged access — and needs to get to use that access.”
She said it made zero sense, even from the U.K. perspective, to seek “a compromise” on the ECJ when the Luxembourg court was there to protect Northern Ireland’s free trade with Europe, not stop it.
“Lord Frost makes all sorts of comments,” McGuinness said. “But the United Kingdom, when they fully think through this, will see this is not an imposition on U.K. law. This is a protection for the single market to which part of the U.K. has access.”
She said the challenge for the U.K. government was to dump demands that only worsen tensions and instead “find a solution or a way of thinking that doesn’t address it [the ECJ] as ‘a burden.’”
McGuinness said wrangling over the protocol has dragged on too long because British authorities “just didn’t implement” it fully at Northern Irish ports and since have “tried to resile on some of those commitments” and undermined trust across Europe.
“There are those who will find problems in every solution,” said McGuinness, who is 62. “We will probably deal with Brexit for the rest of my days.”
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