Brussels Willing To Reduce Northern Ireland Checks But European Court Still A Firm Red Line
The European Union has offered to scrap the majority of checks on food crossing the Irish Sea in a bid to break the ongoing deadlock with the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice-President has detailed a series of proposals which the bloc says would result in the amount of paperwork facing trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland being dramatically reduced.
The plan, which contains major concessions from the EU, would result in checks on food destined for shelves in Northern Ireland being reduced by 80% compared to the Protocol in its current form being implemented in full, he said.
"The EU has an unwavering commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, and for this reason, to the implementation of the Protocol which brings abouts unique advantages of dual access to both the UK and EU markets," he told a press conference on Wednesday evening.
"Ultimately, our number one priority remains to ensure that the hard earned gains of the Good Friday Belfast agreement — I'm talking about peace and stability — are protected while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market."
He continued: "Today's package has the potential to make real, tangible difference on the ground."
"The reason why I am so confident is simple: we have listened to, engaged with and heard Northern Irish stakeholders, from political leaders, to businesses, and a cross section of civic society.
"Our proposed solutions are 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."
Speaking earlier in the day, an EU official said the proposals, which are set out in four policy papers, were "significant" and much more than "tinkering around the edges" of the Protocol.
However, they warned that the bloc would not renegotiate the role of the European Court of Justice in enforcing the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, and that a "big gap" would remain between the two sides if Boris Johnson continued to insist on its removal from the treaty.
Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, who oversees the government's post-Brexit relationship with the EU, yesterday called for an entirely new treaty and warned Brussels that failing to make fundamental changes would be a "historical misjudgement".
The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed as part of UK's Brexit deal with the EU, was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and came into effect at the beginning of this year.
But the UK government has since said it wants to fundamentally renegotiate the treaty, arguing that it is causing an unacceptable level of disruption to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The EU said today that while much of this new red tape was a direct consequence of the Brexit negotiated by Johnson, some of the trade disruption was unintended and should be rectified.
The EU is willing to reduce the number of checks on products of animal origin moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland by 80% using a new bespoke trade model for the province.
Under these proposals, a lorry from Great Britain carrying a mixture of goods — like meat, fish and eggs, for example — would only have to present one piece of paperwork when entering Northern Ireland, whereas now a mixed consignment attracts any number of documents depending on the number of items.
Chilled meats like sausage and pies would also allowed to enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain, putting an end to the so-called sausage war.
This would be achieved through a system of labelling but would require the bloc to have greater access to UK data on the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, Sefcovic said.
The bloc is also prepared to halve the amount of customs formalities facing British businesses sending goods across the Irish Sea, Sefcovic told the press conference, and is also ready to act to make sure medicines produced in Great Britain can flow freely to Northern Ireland.
EU sources stressed this was not a "take it or leave it" offer and was designed to form part of fresh negotiations with the UK, which will begin in London tomorrow. Sefcovic is set to meet with Frost in the coming days, with both sides keen to strike an agreement before the end of the year.
However, they urged the Prime Minister and Lord Frost to be realistic in their demands, warning that the EU would not satisfy their demands on the European Court of Justice, or what is often dubbed the issue of "governance."
The role of the European Court of Justice has little to do with trade and re-opening the issue would only lead to more uncertainty for Northern Ireland, they argued.
A government spokesperson tonight said the UK would look at the proposals "seriously and constructively."
They said: "Significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree a durable settlement which commands support in Northern Ireland.
“We need to find a solution which all sides can get behind for the future, which safeguards the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and which puts the UK-EU relationship on a stronger footing. We are ready to work hard with this in mind."
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh welcomed the EU proposals, describing them as a "serious step in the right direction in addressing the practical concerns of businesses and communities on the ground."
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