UK, EU Facing 'Intensive Talks’ As Brussels Offers to Slash 80% of Northern Ireland Border Checks
European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic proposed a “bespoke Northern Ireland-specific solution” during a press conference on Wednesday, with Brussels offering to scrap 80 percent of border checks on some goods that enter NI from Britain.
The UK will engage in “intensive talks” with the European Union on the package of concessions pertaining to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol
proposed by Brussels, reported Sky News.
New plans for the contentious protocol, announced by European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday, have been touted as "far-reaching" and "ambitious" by the EU.
The British government is studying the proposals and "will of course look at them seriously and constructively", a Downing Street spokesman was cited as saying, adding that further talks will be "rapidly conducted" to find common ground.
Maros Sefcovic had claimed Brussels was offering a “bespoke Northern Ireland specific solution” to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
"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," stated the Downing Street spokesperson.
From ditching 80% of checks on goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland to an offer to establish new "democratic institutions" linking stakeholders in Belfast and Brussels, the proposals outlined
by Sefcovic have been called a starting point that falls "a long way short" of sought fundamental changes by Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
"We will take time to study the detail of the papers produced. However there is no escaping the reality that the Northern Ireland Protocol has harmed Northern Ireland, both in economic and constitutional terms," said party leader Jeffrey Donaldson.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin also "strongly" welcomed the proposals. UK Brexit minister Lord David Frost and Maros Sefcovic are expected to meet in the next few days to discuss the new package.
Responding to London’s arguments that the NI protocol is not working, with delays and interruptions to supplies between the UK and Northern Ireland, Brussels has acknowledged that the protocol needs to be amended. It has drawn up plans that offer "a type of express lane" that will facilitate the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.
Thus, checks on the transport of certain foods, plants and items of animal origin from Great Britain into Northern Ireland will be cut by 80%. Sefcovic illustrated how this would work in practical terms, saying that a lorry delivering, for example, a mixed load of dairy products, fish and confectionary would only require one certificate instead of multiple ones. Customs paperwork will purportedly be cut by 50%, in line with the new offer.
The EU will broaden the definition of what products flowing from Britain will be designated as “not at risk” of entering the wider single market from Northern Ireland to a wider group of businesses and products. This measure would allow small and medium businesses to benefit. The package also presupposes free flow of medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by amending EU laws.
"We have completely turned our rules upside down and inside out to find a solution to an outstanding challenge, which involves the EU changing its own rules on medicines," said Sefcovic.
Furthermore, mechanisms will be altered to allow for participation of Northern Ireland politicians and communities in implementation of the protocol.
In exchange for the concessions on checks, the British side is called upon to ensure that border inspection posts are functioning, with Brussels officials granted access to real-time data to monitor "every link in the supply chain". Sefcovic hailed the measures as able to enhance "stability and predictability" in Northern Ireland.
The EU proposals do not address the issue of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is the final arbiter in alleged breaches of the NI protocol.
"The UK agreed to that in the first place, and it can't change its mind now," a senior diplomat was cited by Sky News as saying.
Contentious NI Protocol
Ahead of the proposals put forward by the EU, David Frost had warned that it would be a “historic misjudgement” for the 27-member bloc not to rewrite certain key parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as part of the divorce with the EU. Following the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, an effective Irish Sea border has been created as a compromise measure to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Brexit Withdrawal agreement stipulates that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK's customs territory but has to adhere to some EU rules to allow goods to move freely into the Republic and the rest of the EU. During Brexit negotiations, the UK and EU had underscored that protecting the Northern Ireland peace deal (the Good Friday agreement) was a priority, keeping the land border between the Republic of Ireland (remaining in the EU) and Northern Ireland (in the UK) open.
David Frost, who had worked on the original withdrawal document, emphasised that the protocol, in line with which the UK was being asked to introduce a full boundary within the country, apply EU law, and settle disputes in EU courts, was “not working on the ground” in Northern Ireland.
According to him, it was threatening to jeopardise the 1998 Belfast agreement that had put an end to decades of sectarian violence. Downing Street was ready to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, a safeguard clause allowing either side to dispense with applying the protocol if it "leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist", warned Frost.
As to the post-Brexit role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the arbiter of EU law being applied in Northern Ireland
, as part of the protocol, the minister insisted the current arrangements "will not work as part of a durable settlement".