(Source: European Commission)
“Check against delivery”
I am delighted to be speaking to you today – and it is an honour to be introduced by my friend, Mike Bloomberg, with whom – as you heard – I joined forces under the Global Covenant of Mayors, pioneering climate leadership with cities around the globe.
This is precisely the kind of initiative we need today, especially as we move Europe’s green transition – with its growing security dimension – into a higher gear.
Now, standing here, it is inevitable that our minds turn back to the speech of the then UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, to Bloomberg in 2013. That was the occasion on which he laid out his vision for the future of the European Union, as well as his intention to hold a referendum on continued UK membership.
I must admit that it is hard not to see a certain sense of irony, in hindsight, in Mr Cameron arguing against – quote – “simply hoping a difficult situation will go away” – end of quote.
Because that speech set in motion a train of events which are still ongoing today, nearly a decade later.
We indeed find ourselves in a difficult situation, which will most certainly not simply disappear.
That is why I hope we are close to reaching the end of this particular cycle. You may not hear this often from a European Commissioner, but it is high time we got Brexit done.
When Mr Cameron made his remarks, Europe was a very different place. Unfortunately, his assertation that Winston Churchill’s “twin marauders” of war and tyranny had been banished from our continent has proven incorrect.
But in the face of Russia’s brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine, it is clearer than ever before that the EU and the UK are natural allies – given our historic bond, our shared values, and our common challenges, global in nature.
Together with other partners, we have shown in our response to Moscow’s aggression that we will continue to stand side by side in the name of peaceful democracy.
The European Union seeks to have a strategic, enduring and mutually beneficial partnership with the United Kingdom.
We value what we accomplished together during the UK’s EU membership, spanning almost five decades. And we respect the decision of UK voters to leave our union, as well as the type of Brexit the UK government chose.
This respect is perhaps best demonstrated in the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland, an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The Protocol marks the first time that the EU has entrusted the control of its economic border to an outside partner. In practice, we adjusted our rules, allowing Northern Ireland to maintain access to the EU’s Single Market for goods.
I agree with Prime Minister Johnson’s assessment from 2019 that the Protocol is fully compatible with the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
In fact, thanks to the Protocol, we prevented a hard border on the island of Ireland, and ensured that Northern Ireland can continue to benefit from the peace process in full.
For these very reasons, the EU cannot – and will not – accept this delicate balance being unilaterally and illegally disapplied because of an outright U-turn by the UK government.
So, in short – the Protocol embodies trust. Trust in the political process. Trust between the EU and the UK. Trust in international agreements.
Trust is the essence of any true partnership. Therefore, rather than eroding it or breaking it, there must be a genuine determination to build the kind of cooperation we need in today’s world.
I am convinced that this is what people in both the UK and the EU deserve. And this is my main message today.
Given the strong economic headwinds and rising energy and food prices as well as inflation, this is surely the moment to abandon the chronic trend of non-implementation and unilateral surprises that has emerged from the UK side.
Instead, Northern Ireland could be fully exploiting its unique position, what you might call “the best of two worlds” – or having jam on both sides of the bread – a powerful magnet for foreign investment.
But to turn this vision into lasting reality, you need stability, legal certainty, and predictability – the very objective of the EU’s approach to practical challenges linked to the implementation of the Protocol on the ground.
That is why my team and I had been engaging extensively with all stakeholders, resulting in a set of solutions put forward last October and further fleshed out two weeks ago.
By showing genuine and unprecedented flexibility within the Protocol, we have gone the extra mile. For instance, our proposals would:
- Reduce sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls by more than 80 percent;
- Cut customs paperwork in half;
- Create an express lane – or green lane, if you prefer – for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland;
- Simplify certification, with a single three-page document for a whole lorry full of different goods filled in once a month;
- And allow the movement of certain goods that would otherwise be restricted, such as chilled meat, including sausages.
This robust offer can work, and it can work fast. I am sure of it, because we have already proposed and delivered, in record time, on the promise of an uninterrupted supply of medicines to Northern Ireland.
But the EU also has its limits, as we must protect the integrity of the EU’s Single Market and our consumers. It is simply unrealistic – and unfair – for London to expect that all barriers can be lifted when goods move to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
On this, the UK government needs to be honest at home and respectful vis-à-vis the EU. Zero checks is not an option. Checking everything is not practical. But making some minimal checks – yes, that’ll work.
Because post-Brexit, the pre-Brexit reality is no longer an option.
And it is worth underlining that it is not for London to unilaterally change the game and decide what enters the EU’s Single Market. Such an approach amounts to a clear violation of international law.
I can bring as many solutions to the table as possible, and I have done so, but I cannot force political will on someone else’s behalf.
The UK’s failure to engage with us on our initiatives is extremely disappointing – more so, as a majority of people in Northern Ireland can appreciate the positive benefits and opportunities that the Protocol brings.
The UK’s Bill, on the other hand, would lead to constant uncertainty. Put simply: it would not work.
Ministers in London would have the freedom to change the rules on a whim. A dual regulatory regime – where businesses opt for EU or UK regulations – would bury them under a mountain of bureaucracy.
This would clearly be a lose-lose situation – for EU-UK relations and, first and foremost, for Northern Ireland.
A long shadow being cast over our relationship in this way increases our vigilance – including in relation to UK statements about “slashing EU regulation”, touted by some as a major benefit of Brexit.
The UK is, of course, fully entitled to diverge from the EU, if it wishes to do so. But this regulatory divergence has limits as well as consequences.
For instance, in the area of financial services, data, and certain food products, the EU’s unilateral decision to grant market access is conditioned on the UK’s current regulatory framework. In other words, an end of mutual recognition is a possibility if the UK changes its standards.
We will therefore be watching developments closely.
But even where regulatory divergence is practically and legally possible, it will carry more cost and will further deepen the barriers to trade between the EU and the UK. Because more divergence means more friction and less trade – simple as that.
I have said it before, but it bears repeating: the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is not – and can never be – a replacement for EU membership.
Leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union has consequences. Arguing to the contrary is a fallacy. This is unfortunate both for the EU and the UK.
Even allowing for the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of Brexit on trade between the EU and the UK is starting to show more clearly.
Brexit has increased rather than decreased red tape. Trade is no longer as frictionless and dynamic as before, for both goods and services.
Eurostat data shows that last year, goods imports from the UK to the EU declined by 13.6% compared to 2020 levels, and by nearly 25% compared to 2019 levels.
In the area of services, reciprocal access to our markets has become more burdensome and costly. According to Eurostat, the value of services imported from the UK to the EU fell by roughly 7% last year, compared to 2019.
The UK’s own Office for Budget Responsibility further estimates that total EU-UK imports and exports are 15% lower than they would be if the UK had remained a Member State.
At times of economic strain, this hurts businesses on both sides of the Channel.
In the meantime, the economic benefits for Northern Ireland are becoming increasingly clear, with its GDP growing at twice the rate as in England in the most recent figures available, for the third quarter of 2021.
This shows that there is no use in endlessly revisiting the past. Because renegotiating the Protocol – an agreement that took years to find – would lead to significant uncertainty.
Therefore, while dealing with all three counterparts appointed by the UK government, my approach has been clear and consistent all along:
- Engage with stakeholders in Northern Ireland;
- Facilitate the implementation of the Protocol to the maximum extent possible, in the face of challenges brought about by Brexit;
- And move on from Brexit to a truly strategic EU-UK partnership.
This is in stark contrast with the “my way or the highway” approach, reflected in the UK’s latest unilateral move.
However, the EU’s door remains open to dialogue. Because of our unwavering commitment to peace on the island of Ireland. And because only joint solutions can truly protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, with dialogue and cooperation at its heart.
Northern Ireland can – and should – remain a shining example of what can be achieved if people come together.
And in the current geopolitical environment, where the rules-based order is under pressure, strengthening Western unity should be our moral imperative.
That includes strong, strategic EU-UK relations that I certainly want to see.
Because at the end of the day, as David Cameron stated in this very place, back in 2013, about the UK’s future, “If we leave the EU, we cannot of course leave Europe.”