The European Commission is confident that a drastic 80% cut in customs controls on products arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will save the Brexit deal. This is the main attraction of the offer he has made to London this Wednesday. Brussels ensures that its offer exploits to the maximum the flexibility provided for in the Protocol on Northern Ireland, agreed upon in the wake of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal agreement from the EU.
The community body, however, rules out dispensing with the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) as the highest judge of possible disputes over the internal market, one of the great demands of Downing Street. “It is very, very, very clear that the CJEU is the last referee [en el mercado único]”, Has emphasized the vice-president of the Commission and responsible for the negotiations on Brexit, Maros Sefcovic, when presenting the community offer late in the afternoon.
As a preemptive strike, British Brexit Minister David Frost reiterated in a speech in Lisbon on Tuesday his threat to unilaterally suspend the Protocol, which both parties already agreed to in 2019 and confirmed in the past trade and development agreement. December, if your renegotiation in depth is not accepted. The offer from Brussels does not come to that.
Community sources explain that this is an interpretation of what has been agreed so far to facilitate its application and, in addition, it can be negotiated to reach a meeting point in the coming weeks, if possible before the end of the year. “Let us put the focus on the practical issues of the Protocol”, Sefcovic has summarized, sneakingly pointing out that Brussels does not intend to channel the texts already signed by both parties.
“In all the meetings that I have had with the authorities of Northern Ireland, with actors from civil society and the business world, only once has the CJEU been mentioned,” Sefcovic minimized, with a diplomatic language that seeks not to increase tension that already exists. But this is not what the Government of Boris Johnson asked for, which does want to withdraw the final interpretation of the treaty from the CJEU.
“Significant changes that address the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, must be made if we want a lasting agreement,” commented an official London spokesperson. And this would mean breaking the single market principle, something that the European Union does not contemplate without raising a physical border between the two Ireland. So now the ball is in the court of Boris Johnson, who if he fulfilled his threat would endanger the bilateral relationship between the two banks of the English Channel and threaten the peaceful coexistence on the Irish island, which remains in a precarious balance. , as could be seen this year, since the Good Friday peace accords were signed in 1998.
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The offer of the Executive chaired by Ursula von der Leyen has materialized in four unofficial documents that address one after another most of the complaints about the Irish Protocol raised by London in July. And it also comes after a visit by Vice President Sefcovic to Northern Ireland. “All the business leaders I have met have emphasized that they need certainty,” he said. Hence, the Community politician has repeatedly stressed that his intention with this proposal is for the Northern Irish economy to “flourish”.
What has been put on the table highlights the Brussels concession on phytosanitary controls at the entrance of food products for retail sale in Ulster. The vast majority will be able to arrive from Great Britain without undergoing any additional sanitary control despite the risk that they will end up on the European market through the Republic of Ireland.
Community sources underline that “the difficulties that have arisen are the result in large part of Brexit and of the model of exit from the EU chosen by the United Kingdom”, alluding to Johnson’s decision to also abandon the customs union and the single market. But the same sources acknowledge that the exit agreement signed two years ago has had “unforeseen consequences” in Ireland and they consider it necessary “to offer practical solutions to the problems detected.” These words refer to delays in the supply of some products and shortages in supermarkets. Obstacles have also arisen in the arrival of medicines. And to solve them Sefcovic has been forceful: “We are going to go so far that we are willing to change the rules.”
What Brussels does rule out is a full-fledged renegotiation of the Irish Protocol, as required by the Johnson government, which has even already sent the Commission a draft of its proposal for a new treaty. “If the British demand in-depth changes to the Protocol, then there will be nothing to negotiate,” warns a community source. “It was not by chance that we spent three and a half years negotiating it,” recalls that source in the face of London’s attempts to present the agreement as an imposition by Brussels on the Northern Irish people.
The Commission believes that its flexibility proposals offer the way to save relations with London and trusts that the negotiations will be honest, a doubt that hangs over these talks due to the British claims to redo in depth what was already agreed in November 2019. ” Of course I hope that the negotiation is in good faith ”, has settled Sefcovic, explicitly asked about it. Completely in tune with this is the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, Micheál Martin. “If everyone operates in good faith and if the focus is on addressing the commercial disruption that has arisen, then these proposals deal with the problem and respect the treaties signed by all,” he said in the Dublin Parliament, in a loaded sentence of implicit reproaches to the attitude of London in recent months.
Vice-president Sefcovic’s team assures that his proposal will eliminate up to 80% of the controls of most of the food products that are usually found in supermarkets. Brussels would thus avoid the repetition of the so-called “war of the sausages”, unleashed at the beginning of this year. Then, the entry into force of the Protocol (after the end of the transitional period of Brexit) complicated the import to Northern Ireland of meat products from Great Britain, very common among Ulster consumers. The symbolism of the British sausages in this battle is such that it has been the only product mentioned by Sefcovic this Wednesday, which in the other cases was limited to generic mentions.
The European offer requires in return a tightening of the supervisory mechanisms on British territory to ensure that exports to Northern Ireland actually come from England, Scotland or Wales and not from third countries. Products must also be properly labeled to specify their destination for the Northern Irish market.
Brussels is also proposing to drastically reduce customs paperwork for importing any type of product into Northern Ireland. The plan would allow an importing company to file a single declaration to process the entry of hundreds of different products. “We estimate that this measure will reduce customs paperwork by 50%,” they point out from the Commission. The European plan will also facilitate the arrival on the Northern Irish market of generic drugs manufactured in Great Britain. The legal changes proposed by the Commission will exempt UK pharmaceutical companies from having to move their production to the Irish island and will be able to continue supplying the Irish province market from their factories in other parts of the UK.
Lastly, the European proposal includes the possibility of improving transparency in the application of the Protocol and of intensifying the consultation process with all affected parts of civil society. But Brussels recalls that the Protocol itself already includes very guarantee mechanisms on the participation of the authorities of the British province in the practical application of the agreements on the island.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.