Boris Johnson dealt a major blow to Brussels after rejecting the European Commission’s attempts to set up a permanent office in Northern Ireland.
Ministers rejected the request in February after EU officials sought to set up a de facto monitoring outpost in the province. Eurocrats wanted to establish the office to enhance the bloc’s surveillance over customs checks being carried out on goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. While the Prime Minister has vowed to respect the terms of his divorce deal with Brussels and implement the new procedures, some in the Belgian capital fear he will renege on previous promises.
It is understood the EU’s proposed new office would house veterinary and customs staff tasked with monitoring their British counterparts’ enforcement of the Irish Sea border.
A UK Government spokesman said: “We received an initial request from the EU and responded to decline the proposal in February. We have since received a follow up letter to which we will respond in due course.”
Mr Johnson’s Cabinet argued there was no way they could allow Brussels to establish a permanent presence in Belfast.
Since Britain left the EU on January 31, the Commission has closed offices in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
The External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy unit, were tasked with reestablishing their presence in Belfast.
Brussels argued that Article 12 of the Northern Ireland protocol allows for the bloc to set up a technical presence in the province.
Under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are subject to customs checks and tariffs.
Products must respect the bloc’s single market rules and tariffs must be applied if they are at risk of entering its trade territory.
Article 12 states: “The authorities of the United Kingdom shall be responsible for implementing and applying the provisions of Union law made applicable by this Protocol to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland.”
It also demands “the United Kingdom shall facilitate such presence of Union representatives and shall provide them with the information requested” to allow for Brussels to supervise whether the checks are being carried out correctly.
But ministers argue this undermines the UK’s sovereignty and reopens the argument over which side is in charge of carrying out the customs procedures.
They agreed Article 12 doesn’t give Brussels the right to establish a permanent presence in Northern Ireland.
Senior Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen said: “Consistently throughout the Referendum and the Brexit process Brussels have overplayed their hand and misjudged the mood of the UK, it appears they are very slow learners – our land, our people.”
At a recent meeting of the Joint Committee, the Commission said there is an “urgent need” for the UK to present a detailed timetable of how it plans to prepare and implement the new customs procedures.
The Brussels-based executive said the UK had to “proceed with the necessary measures, such as preparing for the introduction of customs procedures for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain”.
The meeting was held between Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
A Commission spokesman said: “We can confirm that we have sent letters to the UK regarding a proposal to open a technical office in Belfast with specific technical capabilities to ensure the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (as set out in Article 12 of the Withdrawal Agreement).
“his issue was raised in the Joint Committee on Monday. We remain in contact with the UK on this point.”
Despite its reduced presence in the UK, Brussels has been allowed to maintain a London-only delegation that allows the bloc’s diplomats to operate in the capital.