EU proposes to cut red tape in UK olive branch over Brexit in Northern Ireland
The European Commission has officially unveiled its long-awaited proposals to mitigate the impact of post-Brexit trade deals in Northern Ireland.
The EU’s olive branch includes plans for a significant reduction in the number of checks on goods moving from the UK mainland to the UK province, a condition of Brexit divorce terms.
The proposals were put forward by Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič – but while described as ‘far-reaching’ they do not go so far as to eliminate the role of the European Court in Northern Ireland cases , as requested by the UK government.
Šefčovič began his press conference in Brussels by declaring that the EU’s top priority is to ensure that the gains of the Good Friday deal are protected. This is the 1998 peace accord that ended decades of sectarian violence.
Brussels had entirely “turned our rules upside down” to find a solution, he added.
The commissioner said the plans would result in a significant reduction in checks on goods sent from Britain to Northern Ireland.
The proposals as set out by the Commission cover four key areas:
- A tailor-made solution for Northern Ireland in terms of food, plant and animal health (SPS issues) leading to an estimated 80% reduction in controls
- Flexible customs formalities to facilitate the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, cutting paperwork in half
- ‘Enhanced engagement’ with stakeholders in Northern Ireland to improve transparency and communication
- Long-term uninterrupted supply of drugs from Great Britain to Northern Ireland
“I have listened to and engaged the stakeholders in Northern Ireland. Today’s proposals are our real response to their concerns. We have put a lot of effort into it to bring tangible change on the ground, in response to the concerns expressed by the people and businesses of Northern Ireland, ”said efčovič.
But speaking at the press conference, he would not be attracted by the absence of proposals for changes regarding the European Court.
The UK has insisted it wants the final review of any trade dispute to go to independent arbitration, rather than to the EU’s highest court.
“It is very clear that we cannot have access to the single market without the supervision of the European Court of Justice”, said Sefcovic.
On Tuesday, UK Brexit Minister David Frost said the Northern Ireland Protocol – the international treaty establishing the new arrangements – was not working and urged the EU to replace it, offering the Commission a ‘new legal text ”.
The disruption the protocol has brought to internal trade in the UK has infuriated UK trade unionists, who oppose Northern Ireland being treated any differently from the rest of the UK.
The so-called “Irish Sea” border was negotiated under the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the EU’s binding Withdrawal Treaty. It keeps the North within the EU customs territory and the single goods market, in order to maintain an open land border with the Republic of Ireland to the south.
Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Unionist Northern Ireland party DUP, said “there is no escaping the reality that the Northern Ireland Protocol has harmed Northern Ireland, both in economic and constitutional terms “.
He added that his party would study the changes proposed by the EU, but insisted that “short-term solutions will not solve the problems plaguing the UK’s internal market”.
There are fears in EU circles that if the differences cannot be resolved, Boris Johnson’s government could move forward with its threat to completely suspend the protocol under its provision of the article. 16. This would further damage relations and could even lead to a trade war.
Commission experts are due to travel to London to start detailed discussions on the proposals. Šefčovič is due to meet UK Brexit Minister Lord Frost in Brussels on Friday.
Watch a replay of the press conference with Maroš Šefčovič in the video player above.