Recent tensions felt in Northern Ireland are not a result of the protocol introduced after the UK left the EU but rather Brexit itself, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.
She was speaking following the first day of the EU Council – the first such meeting since the introduction of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement at the beginning of May.
Mrs von der Leyen said: ‘The beginnings are not easy, tensions are being felt around the access, for example, of EU fishing boats, or tensions are without any doubt there around the implementation of the protocol of Northern Ireland.’
A new raft of checks on goods at the ports of Belfast and Larne under the terms of the protocol have sparked anger among unionists and loyalists who feel Northern Ireland is being separated from the rest of the UK.
Mrs Von der Leyen insisted Brexit itself was to blame for rising tensions in Ulster rather than the Northern Ireland protocols agreed as part of it
While talks are continuing between the EU and the UK Government to solve some of the issues linked to the protocol, both the outgoing DUP leader Arlene Foster and her incoming successor Edwin Poots have insisted it must be scrapped.
But Mrs von der Leyen said this would not happen, adding: ‘There should be no doubt that there is no alternative to the full and correct implementation of the protocol.
Recent tensions felt in Northern Ireland are not a result of the protocol introduced after the UK left the EU but rather Brexit itself, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said (Brian Lawless/PA)
Mrs Von der Leyen appeared alongside Charles Michel in Brussels at a largely virtual EU summut
‘And I think it is important to reiterate that the protocol is the only possible solution to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland while protecting the integrity of the European Union’s single market.
‘If we see problems today we should not forget that they do not come from the protocol but they result from Brexit. That is the reason why the problems are there.
‘Now, it’s our common duty with the United Kingdom to do whatever we can to reduce tensions in Northern Ireland and that is why we are exploring practical solutions to help to minimise the disruptions to the everyday life in Northern Ireland.’
What is the EU-UK border row about?
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by the EU and UK as part of the Brexit divorce deal and it is designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
It achieves that by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods, with regulatory checks and inspections now required on agri-food, such as fruit and vegetables, produce moving into the region from the rest of the UK.
The new arrangements have caused some disruption to trade since the start of the year as firms have struggled with new processes and administration.
Earlier this month the UK Government unilaterally decided to extend post-Brexit grace periods on certain trade checks in Northern Ireland.
That prompted the EU to accuse the UK of breaching international law as the bloc launched formal legal action.
The UK has insisted the move was lawful but officials in Brussels said the Government had effectively decided without agreement to impose an ‘open-ended extension’ to the light-touch regulatory periods, which were due to end this month but will now be extended for some sectors until October.