David Young, PA
The European Commission’s vice president is to face questions from Stormont Assembly members on Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
Maros Sefcovic, who is the senior EU official with responsibility for the Protocol’s implementation, is appearing virtually before a special sitting of the Assembly’s Executive Office scrutiny committee on Monday afternoon.
It is the first time he has briefed any parliamentary committee in the UK on the Irish Sea border controversy.
His appearance comes amid continuing dispute over the post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between the North and the rest of the UK.
The Protocol, which was agreed by the EU and UK as a way to keep the land border on the island of Ireland free-flowing, has created a series of new checks and restrictions on goods moving from Britain into the North.
Technical talks are ongoing between Brussels and London to try to hammer out ways to reduce red tape.
A prohibition on British chilled meats entering the North is due to come into force later this week, though the EU has indicated a willingness to grant a UK request to extend a temporary exemption period for a further three months to provide space to find an alternative solution.
On Sunday, the UK government said it had yet to receive formal confirmation that the EU had agreed to the extension.
Ahead of Mr Sefcovic’s Stormont appearance, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said the EU must back up its words about showing flexibility on the Protocol with actions.
Mr Lewis also made clear the UK government would act to “rectify” the “big disruption” caused by the Irish Sea trade barriers.
He blamed the problems attributed to the Protocol on the EU’s “purist” implementation.
However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin insisted EU leaders had no desire to implement any trade restrictions that “don’t make sense” and were willing to resolve the dispute over the Protocol.
Mr Martin said the UK had to show a similar willingness to find workable solutions and expressed concern that “domestic politics” in Britain are getting in the way of that.
The EU/UK exchanges are playing out as tensions among unionists in the North mount over the arrangements they claim have driven a constitutional wedge between the North and the rest of the UK.
There are concerns this anger could boil over during the loyal order parading season during the summer.