I thank the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs for its kind invitation. I will begin with a very general but also fundamental remark. Members understand best that the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union presents unique and significant challenges for the island of Ireland. They will also know very well that the United Kingdom not only decided to leave the European Union but also the Single Market and the customs union. We have been working very hard to find all the solutions to the problems which these decisions have brought about.
The solution that we found to address these challenges is the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is the only way to protect the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement in all its dimensions, preserving peace, stability and preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland while preserving the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, that is, the entire island of Ireland, has been the core of the discussions on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom and it remains the centrepiece of the new relationship of the Union with the United Kingdom as a third country. This was clearly the most difficult part of all the Brexit negotiations, especially on the withdrawal agreement and only the complete unity of all EU member states and the European Union actually guaranteed the success in concluding the withdrawal agreement and developing the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. I assure the committee that the full, faithful and effective implementation of the protocol is of paramount importance to the Union and it constitutes a top priority for EU-UK relations.
There can be no doubt that the Union is and remains fully committed to the protocol and its full and faithful implementation.
Nothing, including the events two weeks ago, can put into question our commitment and determination to make this one solution work. When we speak about Article 16, particularly with regard to 29 January, I would like to be very clear. The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision and we deeply regret this. However, in the end, in a matter of three hours we got it right. Article 16 was never activated. I reassure the committee that the Commission has learned its lesson and it will do its utmost to protect peace in Northern Ireland, as it has done throughout the entire Brexit process. I am sure committee members will ask me how can I prove or guarantee this. The best proof is our track record of unwavering political, economic and financial support for the peace process since the Belfast Agreement was signed and agreed upon. There is also how we conducted the entire Brexit negotiation process. I would like to underscore the fact that Ireland and Northern Ireland were not only on our minds all the time but also in our hearts. Therefore, I believe we achieved a very good result.
We should also look forward, and this is what our discussion should also be about. We need to make sure that mistakes are not repeated. To this end, the European Commission has set up a clearing house where all of the issues with an impact on the UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland will be assessed and evaluated.
There is also the commitment that I will continue permanent contact with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and representatives of Ireland. Together with Mr. Michael Gove, we decided to establish a hotline so we can be in frequent touch and, hopefully, deal with problems when they are still at a technical level so they do not reach a political dimension. I realise the relationship between the EU and UK and proper implementation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland require day-to-day care.
I also want to highlight that my priority is still the same as it was throughout the last year, which is that the protocol must work well on the ground. As committee members know, I received a letter from Mr. Michael Gove a couple of weeks ago in which he presented a high number of requests for additional flexibilities. Here again, I want to stress that our commitment to the protocol is unwavering but we must also understand that implementation of the protocol is a shared responsibility and it must always be a two-way street. Therefore, we also have to recognise the fact that we knew from the beginning that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, customs union and Single Market is a massive operation and it is not possible to prevent all of the disruption. We do our best, and we are working on it, to minimise the negative impact on the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland but it was quite obvious from the beginning that there will be teething problems. I believe we can resolve them if we work very well together.
This was my response to various proposals coming from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mr. Gove. I wanted to underline that before any discussion of additional extended flexibilities took place we also needed to make sure that the UK does its part. We would like to see more information on how border crossings are being built and when they will be finally operational. As we still do not have real-time access to the IT systems, it is very difficult for us to judge whether the trusted trader scheme, which the United Kingdom has insisted upon, works or not and how many businesses actually benefit from it. Because we do not have access to the IT system, we still do not know whether the simplified export health certificate is being used and how complicated it is. Therefore, I decided, together with Mr. Gove, that we will have direct outreach to Northern Irish business leaders and Northern Irish civic society representatives. These meetings will take place on Thursday. I am very glad the Minister, Deputy Coveney, was kind enough to organise a meeting with a Brexit stakeholders group by the end of this week. We want to listen and learn and work on solutions. I also would also like to make clear that for overall success, we need close co-operation with the UK.
I will now make some points on what we agreed with Mr. Gove at our last meeting in person. We adopted the joint statement and I am very happy about it. It went in a very constructive way. We have been very open and frank with each other, as we always are, but we agreed first and foremost to reiterate full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and proper implementation of the protocol. We also made clear that we would spare no effort to implement the solutions mutually agreed on 17 December because they form the foundation of our co-operation. We also agreed that we would intensify the work of the specialised committee on the protocol in order to address all outstanding issues, with the shared objective of finding workable solutions on the ground. Therefore, the meetings, which we planned for the end of this week, will be very important for Mr. Gove, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and for me. We also want to have the joint committee, which is the proper body to address all of these issues, meet no later than 24 February. As I speak, our expert teams are talking. I hope we will have a specialised committee on the protocol doing its work by the end of this week so we can be well prepared for the discussion of the joint committee next week.
I know the committee has limited time for introductory remarks. I will stop here because I know the Chair and committee members will have questions and comments. I am, of course, very eager to hear them. I hope this will be one of a series of meetings we will have where we can discuss issues linked to Brexit, the implementation of the protocol and the later stage of what I hope will be successful implementation. I thank members for their invitation and for their attention.