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Frost and Johnson test Šefčovič’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’ act to destruction

John Crace

EU’s Brexit commissioner is conciliatory over Northern Ireland but patience is wearing thin

Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission
Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission, sets out the EU’s proposals at a press conference. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP
Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission, sets out the EU’s proposals at a press conference. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

Last modified on Thu 14 Oct 2021 05.13 BST

It will never catch on. It was far too reasonable. After Lord Frost had his temper tantrum in Lisbon the day before, it was the turn of Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission, to set out the EU’s proposals for ironing out the UK’s problems with implementing the Northern Ireland protocol at a press conference in Brussels.

Šefčovič could have chosen the nuclear option. He could have started by saying that Lord Frost appeared to want to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol that Lord Frost had himself negotiated less than two years previously. That it would have been helpful for the UK to have spent more time examining the deal they had signed at the time, rather than just sign any old agreement to get Brexit done and then hope to rework the bits that were politically tricky for the hardline Brexiters at a later date.

But rather than adopt the same combative approach as Frost, Šefčovič opted to play Mr Nice Guy. He knew the UK negotiating team hadn’t always been the brightest and hadn’t always understood what they were signing up to so he was prepared to give them a little extra leeway by letting them have a second chance. So here was what he was proposing. On medicines he was prepared to turn EU law “inside out and upside down” to make sure that everyone in Northern Ireland got the drugs they needed with the least hassle.

On agrifoods the vice-president was happy to do away with 80% of the current checks – he understood the Northern Irish need for the delights of a Cumberland sausage – and on customs he would do away with 50% of the regulations currently in place under the NI protocol. And if it helped he would set up some focus groups so that businesses and politicians could see that any arbitration in disputes was being treated fairly with the interests of Northern Ireland paramount.

Šefčovič looked pained. It was exhausting being this reasonable with people seemingly hell-bent on making the NI protocol fail. He was falling over backwards to find practical solutions to the problems people had told him they were facing, but he could feel in his gut that Frost and the DUP would find something to quibble about that would undermine any negotiation.

Understandably, most questions focused on the role of the European court of justice. The issue that Frost had only recently decided was his red line: hell, he needed something to torpedo a deal and that would have to do. Šefčovič initially tried to sidestep giving an answer. Why couldn’t everyone focus on the positive practicalities he had just presented to the UK to help them sort out their own Brexit mess? After all, it was he who was handing out the favours here. It hadn’t been the EU that had insisted on the hardest possible Brexit that threatened the Northern Ireland peace process.

But gradually even Šefčovič’s patience began to wear thin. All he had tried to achieve had been to address the problems that the people in Northern Ireland had told him they were having. And in that time only once had anyone mentioned the European court of justice to him. And the first time the UK government had raised the subject had been as an afterthought in the command paper published during the summer. He had effectively been mugged off. He had spent time stretching the boundaries of EU law to solve problems to which the UK didn’t really want a resolution. Frost wanted the Northern Ireland protocol to collapse.

The press conference ended with Šefčovič gently laying out a few home truths. Yes, he had tried to bend the rules. Yes, he had done his best to expedite trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yes, he had even taken a few risks on some products entering the single market from the UK. But the bottom line was that the single market was governed by the ECJ. He had tried to smooth that awkward fact away to help the UK save face, but if the UK was determined on backing out of an agreement it had happily signed as “a great deal for the UK” not so long ago, then it needed to accept reality. Never Frost or Boris’s strong point.

Šefčovič checked his diary. He had a lunch arranged with Frost for Friday. That should be fun. Not. This one was going to run and run.