By Rebecca Black, PA
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic has urged Britain to “reciprocate” in talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Intensive talks are continuing between the UK and the EU over the post-Brexit arrangements which have sparked outrage among unionists in the North.
They say additional checks on goods arriving into the region are impacting trade as well as undermining the North’s relationship with Britain.
Mr Sefcovic insisted the benefits of the protocol are “immense”, offering Northern Ireland access to EU and UK markets.
He was speaking as he appeared remotely before the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Executive Committee on Wednesday.
Mr Sefcovic said he wanted to “reaffirm the EU’s overarching objective to establish a positive and stable relationship with the United Kingdom”.
“We have been showing flexibility and creativity in finding solutions within the framework of the protocol,” he added.
Mr Sefcovic said the protocol is “not perfect, but it is the best response to the UK’s decision to withdraw from EU and the form of Brexit the government has chosen”.
He said the EU has put forward a package of solutions addressing the main issues: supply of medicines, checks on goods, and simplification of east-west trade in terms of customs.
“Our proposal will deliver significant changes, they amount to a new model for the implementation of the protocol and can deliver a real difference for all people and businesses in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“We made an important move towards the UK with far-reaching proposals for solutions. We need the UK government to reciprocate this now, we have no time to lose, and what is most pressing is the need to ensure continued supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“We have put the solutions on the table, we have been listening carefully to the pharmaceutical industry.
“I made a promise during my visit to Belfast in September where I said I would do whatever it takes to solve this very important issue, including amending our own rules, and I will keep my word and our UK partners know that.”
Mr Sefcovic said political and technical discussions between the EU and UK are continuing, and he will speak to the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost on Friday.
“I can assure you that I am sparing no efforts to reach solutions,” he told MLAs.
“We will remain calm and constructive but also firm. The EU stands united, our commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement is absolute, the key prerequisite for this is the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We hope that the United Kingdom government will follow down the path of engaging to find solutions because this is in everybody’s interests.
“Now is not the time any more to insist on things that civil society organisations or businesses have not identified as a problem in my numerous engagements with them.
“Now it’s time to act and to act on the things that matter to the people, like the uninterrupted supply of medicines.
“The EU for one is putting all its energy into getting a solution. Our ultimate goal is to provide predictability, stability and certainty for the people of Northern Ireland, and we are absolutely convinced that our package does exactly this.”