Ursula von der Leyen has said she has had “encouraging” engagement with Rishi Sunak on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but added that the consequences of Brexit cannot be completely removed.
Arriving in Dublin for a two-day visit on Thursday, the European Commission president said she is “very confident” a solution on the protocol would be found if the UK government is willing.
Negotiations are continuing between London and Brussels aimed at securing post-Brexit changes to the satisfaction of both sides.
🇮🇪 In Dublin today. Very happy to meet @MichealMartinTD.
Thank you for the great cooperation over the past 2.5 years – quite eventful years, too.
In difficult times, you always remained true to our European values.
Go raibh míle maith agat. pic.twitter.com/z0WiTfPjON
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) December 1, 2022
The protocol, a post-Brexit trading arrangement for Northern Ireland designed to avoid a hard border, has caused some trading issues since its implementation.
It has resulted in tensions between the EU, the UK and Ireland on how to resolve them, particularly after a Bill was introduced at Westminster that aims to remove unilaterally some trading rules currently in place.
There has been some hope that the new British Government will provide an opportunity to solve the stalemate over the remaining bureaucratic and trading issues.
In an address to the Irish parliament, Ms von der Leyen suggested that relations had improved under Mr Sunak.
“I’m glad that today our talks with London are marked by a new, more pragmatic spirit because the European Union and the United Kingdom are still members of the same extended family, even if we no longer live in the same house,” she said.
“I can promise you that whenever the European Union sits down with our British friends, we will do so with ‘an honest heart and an open mind’ – to quote the great Irish band The Saw Doctors.
“By applying common sense and focusing on the issues that really matter in Northern Ireland, I believe we can make progress in resolving the practical issues surrounding the protocol.
“We’re listening closely to the business and civil society stakeholders in Northern Ireland, but the consequences of Brexit and the kind of Brexit chosen by the UK cannot be removed entirely.
“The solutions we find must ensure that the single market continues to function in Ireland and elsewhere in the European Union.
“I think if both sides are sensitive to this careful balance, a workable solution is within reach. I believe we have a duty to find it.
“My contacts (with) Prime Minister Sunak are encouraging and I trust we can find the way.
“Let me reassure you, Ireland can always count on the European Union to stand by the Good Friday Agreement.
“There can be no hard border on the island of Ireland.”
This prompted applause from Irish politicians in the chamber.
Irish premier Micheal Martin thanked the EU Commission president for the EU’s “unswerving solidarity” with Ireland throughout Brexit.
“Like you, we want to see a new and vital partnership with the United Kingdom – a constructive one – which will be achieved if we can resolve the issues relating to the protocol, and with right political will, I believe we can achieve that,” the Taoiseach said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney later responded: “I too believe that a solution is within our grasp, if we have a partner to achieve an outcome that we can all accept and move on from.”
The EU leader also said that the bloc and Ireland have always been in “very close co-operation” on Brexit matters over the years.
“It was ironclad and is ironclad, and this is so important,” she said while speaking outside Government Buildings in Dublin.
“I know that Brexit meant a lot of adaptation for Ireland, but you have done this very successfully as far as I can see it.”
Ms von der Leyen said on Thursday: “We, the European Union have been listening very carefully to the concerns of people and businesses in Northern Ireland…
“We have always shown flexibility, we will always have a constructive approach to these issues.
“If there is the political will in the UK, I am very confident that we can reach a positive conclusion.”
Ms von der Leyen was greeted by Irish premier Micheal Martin as she arrived at Government Buildings in Dublin before addressing Irish parliamentarians.