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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Shiny happy EU people as Maros Sefcovic refuses to sing the blues

It was Mood Indigo, or maybe Song Sung Blue as Maros Sefcovic strode into the cavernous aircraft hanger-style venue of the EU press conference room. Resplendent in a riot of azure – sky-blue tie and navy jacket against a harebell-blue backdrop – the European Commission vice-president bounded in, fizzing with self-importance to deliver an eagerly awaited speech.

So eagerly awaited in fact, that some of the key players had struggled to contain themselves at all. On Saturday night, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, had started a late-night Twitter spat with Brexit negotiator David Frost. “Does UKG actually want an agreed way forward or a further breakdown in relations?”, he tweeted. Shots fired, as they say.

It took Frost an hour to reply, but at half-past midnight (one assumes after stumbling indoors, kebab in hand) he’d countered with sass levels usually reserved for Rebecca Vardy’s spats with Colleen Rooney. “I prefer not to do negotiations by Twitter, but since [Simon Coveney] has begun the process …” Then in Lisbon on Tuesday, armed with his best John Bull impression and enough Burke quotes to delight a Tory fringe event, Frost spoke wistfully of ripping up the Protocol altogether.

So between the Twitter diplomacy and the fighting talk, things were looking rancorous. It was left to Mr Sefcovic, every inch the middle-ranking management consultant, to play the role of the peacemaker. He offered, appropriately enough, plenty of “blue sky thinking” and fresh concessions to resolve the stand-off. And they had budged far more than many expected – reducing customs checks by 80 per cent, cutting customs paperwork by half – though they were still adamant they would stand firm on the European Court of Justice.

The EU laid out its olive branch in amiable techno-babble. “If I were to label these proposals,” he announced proudly, “I would dub them the package of enhanced opportunities.” Mr S may be waiting some time for that copywriting job at Saatchi’s or the Sun headline-writer role to come his way.

“The EU has an unwavering commitment to the people of Northern Ireland,” he insisted, and indeed, few could doubt this, given Brussels’s impeccable attention to detail. Imposing, as they do, more checks on goods entering NI than along the EU’s entire eastern frontier, it’s clear one cannot be too careful when it comes to protecting the people of Northern Ireland from such dangers as … food and medical imports.

But all of this was typical of Sefcovic’s sunny revisionism, which sought to erase past divisions and anticipate a newer, brighter chapter in EU-UK relations. “We should really put aside this business of – red lines, artificial deadlines,” he suggested, genially, as if he were diffusing a misunderstanding between contestants in the home-made marmalade class at the village show. A full-blown constitutional crisis was recast as “teething problems”. There was even the promise of a slap-up lunch with “my esteemed colleague Lord Frost” on Friday.

Sefcovic maintained his emollient optimism even in the teeth of disagreeable questions. Why the continuing strictness on pet passports, one reporter wanted to know? Were the sausage concessions simply a sop for offering anything meatier? “I want to focus on the positive agenda,” beamed Sefcovic. “We could be in the home stretch when it comes to the Protocol.” The subtext was clear: I haven’t come here to sing the blues – so why can’t we all just get along?

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