Good evening and thanks for coming or tuning in at this rather late hour. I am truly glad to be here for what I believe is an important moment in our EU-UK relations.
Today, the European Commission has proposed a robust package of creative, practical solutions, designed to help Northern Ireland deal with the consequences of Brexit, while further benefitting from the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
If I were to label these proposed solutions, I would dub them the “package of enhanced opportunities”. This is in fact our core purpose.
The EU has an unwavering commitment to the people of Northern Ireland - and for this reason, to the implementation of the Protocol, which brings about unique advantages of dual access to both the UK and EU markets.
Ultimately, our number one priority remains to ensure that the hard-earned gains of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement - peace and stability - are protected, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU Single Market.
Before I walk you through the details, let me underline that today's package has the potential to make a real, tangible difference on the ground.
The reason why I am so confident is simple. We have listen to, engaged with, and heard Northern Irish stakeholders - from political leaders to businesses and a cross-section of civic society. Our proposed solutions are a direct, genuine response to concerns they have raised.
We have put a lot of hard work into this package, explored every possible angle of the Protocol, and at times, went beyond current EU law.
In effect, we are proposing an alternative model for the implementation of the Protocol. On the one hand, the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be facilitated for goods that are to stay in Northern Ireland. On the other, robust safeguards and monitoring mechanisms should be put in place to make sure they stay in Northern Ireland.
Now turning to our first proposal: on medicines. You may recall that during my visit to Belfast in September, I said that for my part, I would do whatever it takes to guarantee the uninterrupted long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
And indeed, we have completely turned our rules upside down and inside out to find a solid solution to an outstanding challenge. That involves the EU changing its own rules on medicines.
In practice, British wholesalers of medicines will be able to continue supplying Northern Ireland from their current location in Great Britain. They will not need to relocate infrastructure, including testing facilities, or regulatory functions to Northern Ireland or the European Union.
This means, for instance, that Great Britain can continue acting as a hub for the supply of generic medicines for Northern Ireland, even though it is now a third country.
We are ready to put forward a legislative proposal to this end.
Turning to the second part of our package: the area of public, plant and animal health and the movement of sanitary and phytosanitary goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
We are talking about a significant range of retail goods that would be for sale to end consumers in Northern Ireland only. These would benefit from both simplified certification and an approximately 80-percent reduction of checks and controls required today.
Let me illustrate what this means: imagine you are a Northern Irish business importing products of animal origin, like yoghurt, cheese or chickens, from Great Britain. More than 80 percent of the identity and physical checks previously required will now be removed. This will significantly ease the process for bringing food supplies from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Similarly, a lorry transporting different food products, like dairy, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, from Great Britain to supermarkets in Northern Ireland will now just need one certificate stating that all goods of different types, class or description meet the requirements of EU legislation. So if you are transporting a hundred different food products, only one certificate is needed instead of a hundred.
For all this to work in practice, however, the UK government needs to do its part - for example, by ensuring that permanent Border Control Posts are up and running, as agreed a long time ago.
We also need specific safeguards in place, like clear labels and the ability to monitor every link of the supply chain.
We are showing great flexibility but the remaining controls must be done properly - I believe, understandably - to protect the integrity of our EU Single Market.
We are similarly ambitious in the third part of our package, concerning the customs area.
Here, we propose to expand the scope of the existing scheme on ‘goods not at risk' of entering the EU's Single Market to a wider group of businesses and products. For example, more small and medium-sized enterprises could benefit from this scheme, while goods covered by this scheme are free of customs duties because they stay in Northern Ireland.
We also propose to cut in half the customs formalities and processes that are required today for these goods. For instance, a Northern Irish car dealer ordering car parts from Great Britain will only need to provide basic information to the customs authorities, such as the invoice value of the car parts and the parties to the transaction. Once again, up to 50 percent of the current formalities will be removed.
This is possible, if the right safeguards are put in place, ranging from real time access to databases, to better market surveillance, to a termination clause.
Combined with our proposed solutions in the area of sanitary and phytosanitary rules, this will create a type of “Express Lane”, vastly facilitating the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Lastly: in response to a clear and strong demand on the ground, we are proposing ways to enhance the participation of Northern Irish authorities and stakeholders in the implementation of the Protocol, while fully respecting the UK's constitutional order.
Our proposed solutions aim to improve the exchange of information by establishing structured dialogues between various stakeholders and the European Commission.
Northern Irish stakeholders would also be invited to attend some meetings of the Specialised Committees. And we also aim to create a stronger link between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly.
Before I conclude, let me reiterate that with this robust package of practical, imaginative solutions, we can continue to implement the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland for the benefit of all communities on the ground.
It not only cements stability and predictability - an indispensable ingredient for the local economy to flourish - but also paves the way for enhanced opportunities.
When I visited Northern Ireland in September, I met its resilient business community and civic society. And I heard about potential investors from the United States and Canada keen to take advantage of Northern Ireland's unique position, provided there is clarity on how things will work first.
Earlier today, I presented this package of enhanced opportunities to our Member States and the European Parliament - we continue to stand united behind Northern Ireland, while at the same time, remaining determined to protect our internal market.
Now I invite the UK Government to engage with us earnestly and intensively on all our proposals. With them, I am convinced, we could be in the homestretch when it comes to the Protocol.
It is my hope that in the coming weeks, we will jointly arrive at an agreed solution that Northern Ireland truly deserves.