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30 June 2022

Get Brexit Done, says the EU

Maroš Šefčovič, the bloc’s chief negotiator, said that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would put talks back two years.

By Freddie Hayward

The government has agreed to provide an extra £1bn worth of military aid to Ukraine as the Nato summit ends in Madrid today. It’s the finale to a European tour that’s seen Western leaders come together to bolster Nato’s eastern flank in the face of Russian aggression. Downing Street has been keen to portray the PM as playing a unifying, leading role at the G7 and Nato summits, particularly with EU leaders. Johnson has been pictured hugging and laughing with President Macron, for instance.

But there’s another, unspoken side to the recent talks between the Prime Minister and EU leaders: Brexit negotiations have stalled and the government’s proposals to override the Northern Ireland protocol are progressing.

That was on the minds of diplomats and bankers as they descended onto Bloomberg’s offices in the City last night to hear the EU’s Brexit chief negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, speak. Šefčovič’s speech was entitled “High time to get Brexit done” but it would not have pleased the Brexiteers. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would not work; it would put negotiations back by two years, he said. “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.” He said that No 10 needs to be “respectful” towards the EU.

Had Šefčovič met members of the UK government on his first trip to London since February? No. But he had met his billionaire friend Michael Bloomberg and other business leaders before addressing a room of bankers sipping Perrier-Jouët champagne. Indeed, the logos of Bloomberg and the European Commission looked very snug on the screen behind the podium.

Šefčovič went on to outline the changes the EU are prepared to make: cut customs paperwork in half; simplify certification; and allow the movement of goods that would otherwise be restricted, such as chilled meat. (Curiously similar to the position Keir Starmer set out at our Politics Live event this week.)

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After castigating the government for the bill, Šefčovič was quick to highlight the UK and EU’s alignment on Russia’s aggression. “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.” But Brexit remains a drag. Like a “slow puncture”, as a source from the European Central Bank put it to me, its negative economic impact is gradually emerging. If the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is a ploy to kickstart negotiations (which seems unlikely, as I wrote on Tuesday), then the UK is fighting with a weight around its neck. No wonder the EU feels comfortable telling the government to be respectful.

Johnson may be laughing with EU leaders at the Nato summit. But, at home, the EU’s vice-president chose to snub the government during his first trip to London in almost six months. Instead, he went to see Mike Bloomberg.

[See also: In Westminster, change is stirring: Tory hegemony is under threat]

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