There have been extensive technical discussions with the European Commission, both as part of the formal withdrawal agreement structures and in support of them. I have joined Lord Frost in his comments, engagements with Vice-President Šefčovič, Northern Ireland businesses and civil society, as I have said, as well as meetings with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney. These discussions have covered a wide range of issues related to the operation of the protocol. There is an urgent need for this ongoing dialogue to make real progress soon—as soon as possible—so that we avoid any disruption to critical supplies such as food and medicines.
I was not lucky enough to be in this place with Jo Cox, but it is clear that she made an enormous impact during her time here and is much missed.
I know that both negotiating teams worked hard, but it was really disappointing to see the lack of a significant breakthrough last week. We need pragmatic, sensible arrangements in place, just as we need devolved government working again with a new First Minister. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU needs to engage with the practical proposals that are being put forward on issues such as veterinary agreements and authorised trader schemes if we are to make progress on the ground?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has a huge knowledge and understanding of the nuances and the issues in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely right that we need to see a pragmatic and flexible approach. The EU has talked about that, and the vice-president himself outlined that point on British media. We need to see that in practice as we move forward. As I said, we have put forward a whole series of proposals and we look forward to the European Commission engaging with those in a real and direct way.
Following some of the comments last week, particularly those from President Macron, will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power to make it very clear to those in the EU who want to divide up our country that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK?
My hon. Friend makes a correct and an important point. We have been crystal clear on this, and I will be again today: Northern Ireland is a full and an integral part of the United Kingdom. Authority is exercised within Northern Ireland by the UK, not the EU. We believe that being part of the UK is in the best interests of all in Northern Ireland, but we also believe, and I think it is fundamental, that Northern Ireland contributes to making us a stronger and more prosperous United Kingdom.
Given that certain provisions of European Union law apply to the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland by virtue of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, can the Secretary of State explain the legal effect of the unilateral extension of grace periods? Does he not agree that the time has come to do the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland and make use of the diversion of trade provisions of article 16 that allow for legally effective action against arrangements that are damaging the United Kingdom’s internal market, businesses in Great Britain and consumers in Northern Ireland? Secretary of State, the time for action is now, not when the Belfast agreement is in complete tatters.
We are working hard and in good faith to find solutions. Our overriding focus, as I have said, is on stability and safeguarding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and restoring cross-community confidence in the practical operation of the protocol. The protocol could work with common sense, good faith and flexibility from the EU, and we are working to resolve the issues urgently, acutely aware of the time constraints that we face, as the hon. Lady rightly outlined. We are continuing to talk, and I hope that we can make better progress through the Joint Committee structures designed for resolving these problems. If we cannot do that, as I and the Prime Minister have said, no options are off the table.