The EU will consider all of the tools at its disposal if the UK government triggers Article 16, Maros Sefcovic has warned.
The European Commission vice-president said if the British government suspends the Northern Ireland Protocol, it will have “serious consequences” for the region and Brussels’ relationship with the UK.
Addressing Irish politicians, the Commissioner said he worries about the rhetoric and action of the British government around the implementation of the agreement, particularly the divisive protocol.
Mr Sefcovic said there was a “change in tone” in the latest round of talks with Brexit Minister Lord David Frost.
He told the special select committee that the EU is fully committed to protecting Good Friday Agreement.
“However, I have to say that I worry about the rhetoric and action of the UK as regards the implementation of the agreement and in particular the protocol,” Mr Sefcovic added.
“Last Friday, I held my fourth weekly meeting with David Frost on the EU package of solutions.
“I acknowledged and welcomed the change in tone of this discussion compared to previous ones.
“After weeks of intensified discussions, we need the UK to reciprocate the big move the EU has made.
“The EU has taken big steps to find solutions and to provide solutions to concrete problems faced by Northern Irish people and businesses on the ground as a consequence of the Brexit chosen by the UK.”
Mr Sefcovic said he would not speculate on whether the UK will trigger Article 16.
“However, it is clear that if they were to do so, the EU would have to consider all tools at our disposal,” he added.
“It would also have serious consequences for Northern Ireland and for our relationship with UK.”
He said that talks with the UK on the Northern Ireland Protocol are ongoing.
“Judging from my experience and looking across the board of all these negotiations, I’m convinced that we must remain firm in our relations with UK as we have in as have been in recent months and years,” the commissioner continued.
“But we also have to remain calm.”
He said that EU has demonstrated “very clearly” that it has listened to the problems related to the protocol and is ready to solve them.
“That’s of course my preference for the future, to look for constructive solutions to make sure that by our actions we actually demonstrate that we are here for the people of Northern Ireland, that we know how to solve this issue and we can do it within the protocol,” he added.
“Even though I know that for David and his team Article 16 is still one of the options they keep on the table, but I appreciated the change of the tone and I hope that this would be guiding us when we have the meeting on Friday.”
He said resolving the issues is very important to the EU and is being treated at a high level.
“We’re getting a lot of inquiries from United States, from the Congress, from the US Administration,” the committee was told.
“It was also the issue on the agenda when President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen met the President of United States Joe Biden just a couple of days ago. So that’s how high the political game is.”
Sinn Féin senator Niall O Donnghaile said that triggering Article 16 would create a “huge level of uncertainty and instability” during a period of instability and uncertainty.
He added: “Those kinds of threats and that kind of rhetoric around the protocol is actually being translated into street disorder in recent times in the city that I live in Belfast and that has to be condemned.”