Critics of the Northern Ireland protocol have failed to provide alternatives, the EU’s ambassador to the UK said as he slammed politicians looking to tear up the agreement.
João Vale de Almeida called on unionist leaders to focus on making the protocol work rather than fighting against it, pledging Brussels’ commitment to flexibility on its implementation if Downing Street demonstrated good faith.
“The protocol is the solution for the problems created by Brexit in Northern Ireland and that’s where I believe we should focus,” he said.
The comment comes after 41 police officers were injured during violent protests in Northern Ireland over the weekend.
Darrin Jones, the police commander in Derry and Strabane district, called the behaviour reckless and criminal. “I would also appeal directly to parents and guardians to know where their children are and what they are doing to ensure they do not get caught up in criminality and that they are kept safe and away from harm,” he said.
This prompted Stormont to be recalled from its Easter break for an emergency debate.
The violence comes amid soaring tensions within the loyalist community over post-Brexit trading arrangements, which have created new regulatory and customs barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Politicians across the spectrum have condemned the violence but traded blame over who is responsible, with some linking it to tensions over Brexit and others pointing to Sinn Féin’s alleged breach of pandemic rules at a republican funeral last summer along with unionist party denunciations of the police, which they said had created a “toxic” environment.
João Vale de Almeida told the Guardian he understood the “sensitivities” and the “delicate and volatile situation in Northern Ireland”, which he visited last year.
He said the EU was “fully committed in a constructive way to find solutions for those problems” but it had to be “within the limits of the protocol that we have agreed not long ago”.
The ambassador also said the British government had to accept the consequences of Brexit, including the protocol.
“[Let’s] not forget the origin of the issues. We are talking about the impact of Brexit, which was decided by the British people,” he said.
“We are talking about the impact of the departure from the single market, which was decided on the British side as well.
“Squaring the circle is finding solutions for very intricate and delicate problems that were created by decisions taken and decisions [that] have consequences.”
He added: “I can guarantee that from listening to those who negotiated – and Michel Barnier and David Frost were among them – I can tell you that they turned every stone to try to find alternatives to this protocol.
“No one came with a better idea – even those who attack the protocol today, who would like to see it scrapped, have no alternative to the protocol. So that what should be our focus. Our focus should be to implement the protocol.”
Relations between the UK and the EU over Northern Ireland have soured over the implementation of checks and hit rock bottom last month when the UK decided to unilaterally delay the protocol’s full implementation.
That decision is now the subject of legal action by the EU, which Brussels hopes can be averted through further negotiation.