Good afternoon and a warm welcome to Europe House to all of you!
We had very important meetings today with the UK. Let me begin by thanking David Frost for hosting them both here, in London. This is the first time the European Union and the United Kingdom met in the context of the Partnership Council under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. And it was the 8th meeting of the Joint Committee.
In the Joint Committee: We discussed two issues that are at the core of the Withdrawal Agreement and are, in fact, the necessary foundation of any solid relationship between the EU the UK: the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland and the issue of citizens' rights.
On the issue of citizens: the deadline of 30 June for residence application by the EU Citizens in the UK and the UK Citizens in the EU is fast approaching. Our citizens must have legal certainty as to whether they are covered, or not, by the Withdrawal Agreement. We agreed to work together to ensure this is the case.
I also raised the very sensitive issue of the detention of EU citizens at the UK border. I sought reassurances from Lord Frost that all outstanding issues will be solved swiftly.
Turning to the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland, the EU repeated today its unwavering commitment to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. For this, the Protocol needs to be implemented.
The UK agreed to the Protocol as being the best solution- after four years of intensive negotiations - to address the unique situation on the island of Ireland and the challenges created by Brexit and the UK's choice to leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. The EU and the UK agreed that the Protocol was the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its parts.
Over the past years, the EU has engaged creatively and tirelessly to find solutions that would provide businesses and people in Northern Ireland with stability, minimise the inevitable disruption caused by Brexit, and protect the EU's Single Market and Ireland's place in it. The latter being unconditional.
Lately, in December last year, we agreed to a range of solutions with the UK, including grace periods for certain products, or flexibilities regarding documentation because the UK was not technically ready to implement the Protocol for its entry into force.
Since then, we continued working on permanent solutions where feasible. For example, on the continued supply of medicines to Northern Ireland - something I personally take very seriously especially in this time of pandemic - we stand ready to go amend our own laws to ensure supply.
I can also mention guide dogs, VAT on second-hand cars, or certain flexibilities regarding the movement of livestock between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
But we cannot undo the core of the Protocol. The SPS controls have to be performed between GB and NI since this is a necessary condition to ensure the absence of controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
This element has been discussed at length with the UK before agreeing on the Protocol. In this context, the EU agreed, exceptionally, to subcontract the controls of goods entering its Single Market to a third country, the UK.
The UK has to abide by its legal obligations and perform these controls. Unfortunately, there are still numerous and fundamental gaps in the UK's implementation of our agreement. These gaps need to be filled by mutually agreed compliance paths, with concrete deadlines and milestones for the UK to fulfil its existing obligations. There is no other way around this.
As you know, the name of the Protocol is the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. I saw some rumours in the press today about Ireland and I want to clarify something: We have always shown solidarity with Ireland and we will continue to stand by Ireland, which is the Member State most affected by Brexit. This is a matter between the EU and the UK, not between the EU and Ireland. We have always said that the EU's objective is to preserve the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, as well as the integrity of the Single Market - including Ireland's place in it.
Today we are at a crossroad in our relationship with the UK. Trust - which should be at the heart of every partnership - needs to be restored. That is the EU approach and the EU preference.
If the UK were to take further unilateral action over the coming weeks, the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations. Pacta sund servanda.
I will continue to speak regularly to businesses, civil society and politicians in Northern Ireland to hear from them about their experience.
I believe we all have a duty - in Brussels, London, Belfast - to focus on politics that unites rather than divides. I am calling on the UK government to work together on this. And I am positive we can find solutions - where there is a will, there is always a way.
On the Partnership Council: Secondly, the European Union and the United Kingdom launched the work of the Partnership Council under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement today. As you all know, the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement is a prerequisite for a close, solid relationship based on trust.
The implementation of the TCA will actually be equally - if not more important - than its negotiation. Therefore, I am glad that we agreed today on an indicative timetable for the upcoming meetings of the various Joint Committees established under this Agreement.
At the same time, I raised some of the issues that have arisen in recent months, notably:
Fisheries where we agreed that our experts would meet before August to ensure to ensure that the TCA is fully respected. We need stability for our fisheries sectors under the new arrangements. We have already seen some problems around Jersey and we don't want to see that repeated. Behind every license not issued by the UK is a fisherman or fisherwoman and their family and livelihood.
I also stated clearly that we will not accept discrimination between EU citizens on long-term visa fees. We have requested the UK to extend the visa fee reduction to the five Member States currently excluded.
Let there be no doubt: the EU wants to build a strategic, enduring and mutually beneficial partnership with the United Kingdom. The TCA is the basis for this partnership.