Row over EU office in Belfast threatens to derail Brexit talks | Politics

The Irish border question threatens to derail Brexit talks again as the depth of the row over the EU’s desire to have an office in Belfast is revealed.

The UK’s paymaster general, Penny Mordaunt, has written to the EU to firmly reject a repeated request for an office in Northern Ireland: “The UK cannot agree to the permanent EU presence based in Belfast,” she wrote.

Mordaunt was responding to a second request this year from the EU for permission to open an office in Belfast on the grounds it was needed to oversee the implementation of new customs and regulatory checks that will apply to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland from next year.

According to the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ, the secretary general of the EU’s external action service, Helga Schmid, wrote in February that there were “very particular capabilities and competences” required on the ground, “distinctive from the more traditional competences of any other EU delegation”.

She hoped the office would be up and running by June in order to bed down the new processes for traders, the detail of which has been the cause of major political rows. Boris Johnson has insisted there will be no checks and no new paperwork for traders operating across the Irish sea.

The permanent undersecretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Simon McDonald, refused Schmid’s request in March, but she argued in a follow-up letter on 25 March that an office would be necessary.

“At least during the initial phase of the application of the protocol, the EU will want to avail of these rights on an ongoing basis. To do so effectively, an office in Belfast staffed by technical experts is indispensable,” she wrote.

Mordaunt rejected her argument, saying such a presence would be “divisive in political and community terms”.

The government said in a statement on Saturday: “There is no reason why the commission should require a permanent presence in Belfast to monitor the implementation of the protocol.”

The row over the office in Belfast has been simmering for months with no sign of a resolution.

Theresa May’s former Brexit adviser Raoul Ruparel tweeted on Saturday:

Raoul Ruparel

I think the EU has been over zealous here and played its hand badly. I don’t see the UK shifting on this now & it has become a divisive issue for the communities in NI. This is precisely the opposite of what is needed 8/

May 2, 2020

Raoul Ruparel

If the protocol is ever to be implementable on the ground it needs buy in from both communities. Steps should be being taken to try to generate this. But the EU is doing exactly the opposite with this approach. 9/

May 2, 2020

He rejected reports that the UK had agreed to an EU office in February 2019 and was now backtracking.

As May’s adviser at the time, he said no such agreement had been signed off on a political level. He pointed out that it would have been anathema to the Democratic Unionist party, which May was trying to keep onside ahead of a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement.

Even if the UK had agreed to an office last year, it would have had different functions, because May’s Irish border solution was a UK-wide arrangement that would not have involved customs and tariffs on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, he said.

The row illustrates the EU’s concerns that the UK will try to row back on the deal signed in January and not implement customs and regulatory checks on animals and food entering the island of Ireland.

This would cause a major international headache because it would force checks back to the Irish border, something many have said could jeopardise peace.

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