The EU ambassador to the UK has vowed that the bloc will not be “bureaucratic” as it seeks urgent solutions to the Brexit border issue that has stoked political tensions and civic unrest in Northern Ireland.
João Vale de Almeida said the EU was fully aware of the volatile situation in the region and that it had an “emotional” commitment to finding a solution “sooner rather than later”.
There have been months of growing anger in the pro-UK unionist community in Northern Ireland over post-Brexit checks on trade coming through the “Irish Sea border” between Great Britain and the region.
But Vale de Almeida, speaking for the first time since Boris Johnson’s government finally granted him full diplomatic status, said he was “encouraged” by a new spirit of UK-EU co-operation to try to resolve the border issue.
“I don’t want people to think we have a bureaucratic approach to Northern Ireland,” he told the Financial Times. “We have a political and even an emotional commitment. And we are definitely committed to finding solutions.”
Vale de Almeida said the British prime minister’s Brexit, in which the UK left the EU customs union and single market, was “the source of the problem we are facing in Northern Ireland today”.
The EU had to protect the safety of consumers, hence the need for checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which might then cross the open border into the Republic of Ireland and the bloc’s single market, he added.
But he said that talks between London and Brussels to implement the Northern Ireland protocol — which puts the region in a unique trading position, with one foot in the EU single market and another in the UK equivalent — were now in a “better position”.
Vale de Almeida, a Portuguese diplomat with a long EU career, including stints in Brussels and the US, said there was an “increased awareness” in London of what needed to be done.
He added that the UK government was working with Brussels to complete Britain’s implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, including finalising border infrastructure and granting the EU access to IT systems. In parallel, the EU was displaying a “reasonable flexibility”, he said.
Vale de Almeida confirmed that the “ideal situation” to reduce border friction on trade going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be for Johnson to agree to mirror Brussels’ legislation on plants and animal health.
He said that would be a “game-changer in terms of the quality and intensity of controls”, but Johnson and David Frost, his EU minister, are adamant that they will not surrender sovereignty to Brussels.
Teams led by Frost and Maros Sefcovic, EU vice-president, are seeking compromises, including in areas such as the trade in pets and plants. “We are not here to excessively complicate the lives of people and businesses in Northern Ireland,” said Vale de Almeida.
British officials confirmed that talks about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had become more constructive in recent weeks. Vale de Almeida said recent ratification by the European parliament of the EU-UK trade deal had improved the atmosphere.
So too did this week’s decision by Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, to grant Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status, having insisted for months that the EU envoy was the representative of an “international organisation”, not a state.
Vale de Almeida said it was right that Britain afforded the EU ambassador the same standing as his counterparts in every other country, including China. He will now get to present his credentials to the Queen.
“It’s about the institution, recognition, respect for the European Union,” he said. “It’s welcome, it’s significant and it creates even better conditions for me and my team to do the work we are paid to do.”
UK-EU tensions, however, are multiple in nature. The stand-off between Britain and France over the latter country’s fishing rights in waters near the UK crown dependency of Jersey were, conceded the ambassador, a good illustration of the kind of problems that lay ahead.
“We should not allow the relationship to be hijacked by accidents or flare-ups,” he said. The EU has become involved in the Jersey dispute, but Vale de Almeida said the first objective was to “calm things down”.
Brussels has, meanwhile, so far refused to deem Britain’s financial services regulatory regime “equivalent” to the EU’s, depriving UK-based companies of the chance to sell directly into the bloc’s market.
Vale de Almeida said an equivalence ruling by the European Commission was “not to be excluded”, but few in the City of London expect that it will happen soon, if at all. “These are serious issues which require serious consideration,” he added.
The EU ambassador revealed that he had not yet met Frost since he took up his UK ministerial role on March 1, highlighting the wariness with which both sides continue to eye each other. “I look forward to meeting him,” he said.
However, a new system of 20 specialised UK-EU committees — overlaid with a high-level partnership council — is now up and running to oversee implementation of the trade deal between the two sides and provides a network in which to resolve disputes.
Vale de Almeida first met Johnson some 30 years ago while the UK prime minister was honing his Eurosceptic themes as a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and he was a European Commission spokesman. “We are good friends,” he said.