The EU will remove 80% of controls on food entering Northern Ireland from Britain, but Brussels officials were “preparing for the worst” amid signs that Boris Johnson is willing to reject the terms of the agreement.
Maroš Šefčovič, the EU Brexit commissioner, also announced that customs controls on manufactured goods would be cut in half as part of a significant concession to ease post-Brexit border problems.
He said he would meet David Frost, his UK counterpart who has demanded the removal of the entire Northern Ireland protocol, on Friday as he sought to end a months-long fight.
“I hope that with a constructive spirit we can be on the final stretch, and I would be very happy if we could start the new year with new agreements,” Šefčovič told a press conference in Brussels while presenting four presentations on his “new model” for the protocol.
Johnson called for pragmatism, and Šefčovič insisted that he remained positive. But the chances of a compromise seemed low.
Frost told the House of Lords that he had no “red lines” in the new negotiation with the European Commission, but repeated his belief that a new protocol should be agreed without the European Court of Justice (CJEU) playing as arbitrator. . of EU legislation in Northern Ireland. He told his peers that the question of UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland was “fundamental”.
A three-week deadline has been set for talks on new EU proposals. But Šefčovič insisted that the EU would not renegotiate the fundamentals of the protocol that keeps Northern Ireland within the single market, overseen by the ECJ, and draws a customs border in the Irish Sea.
Šefčovič said: “It is very clear that we cannot have access to the single market without the supervision of the ECJ. But I think we should really put this red line business aside, the deadline business, real or artificial, and we should really focus on what we hear from the stakeholders and the people of Northern Ireland, they want us to fix the trouble. practical matters. “
An EU official admitted there was a “big gap” between Frost’s demands and the proposals on the table. “Mainly, it is a call for the UK to be realistic,” the official said. “Focus on providing certainty, stability and predictability rather than focusing on these high-level constitutional issues.
“We believe that renegotiating the protocol would generate uncertainty. And that is the opposite of what we need … There is a reason why the negotiations on the protocol lasted three and a half years. And we believe that we have reached the only viable solution. “
A UK government spokesperson said: “We are looking into the details and will of course take them seriously and constructively. The next step should be intensive discussions on our two sets of proposals, to be carried out quickly, to determine if there is common ground to find a solution.
“Significant changes must be made that address the fundamental issues at the heart of the protocol, including governance, if we are to agree to a lasting agreement that is supported by Northern Ireland.”
The EU’s proposals on goods and medicines represent a significant concession for Brussels, which had previously asked the UK to align itself with the bloc’s food and plant health standards to avoid controls between Britain and Northern Ireland.
While the EU goes on to say that checks and balances on the Irish Sea border are necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and represent Brexit decisions made by the British government, officials admitted more clearly than ever. that its implementation had created “Unintended Consequences” for businesses and consumers. “It goes way beyond touching up the edges,” said one official.
The EU is now proposing a ‘tailor-made Northern Ireland specific solution’. This means that checks would be removed in 80% of the lines on supermarket shelves, with carefully labeled and sourced British sausages, the product that became emblematic of the line between the two sides, no longer running the risk of being banned.
In an additional concession, trucks carrying mixed loads, for example a truck bound for a Northern Ireland supermarket loaded with meat, dairy and confectionery, would only have to provide a health certificate for each trip rather than one for each product line.
Customs paperwork will be greatly reduced through a more generous definition of goods deemed “risk-free” to enter the EU single market through the Irish border.
In exchange for more lax controls, the UK will have to ensure that border inspection posts are operational and that EU officials have access to real-time data on controls.
These are the existing requirements of the protocol and EU officials say they have seen progress in accessing the databases, having previously accused the UK of shuffling.
Some market controls will also be intensified to prevent British products from smuggling into the EU single market via Northern Ireland. Products for the Northern Ireland market should carry individual labels, rather than labels on pallets.
“We are proposing a different model,” said an EU official. “Fewer controls, on the one hand, but more guarantees in terms of governance, more market surveillance and, for this reason, strengthened control of supply chains will also be essential.”
However, in Westminster there are concerns that market surveillance and product source controls will be as much of a problem for traders as the status quo. There was no solution contained in Šefčovič’s proposals to the problem of pets traveling from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK and vice versa.
In response to threats to the affordability and availability of generic drugs in Northern Ireland, the EU will remove the requirement that drug manufacturers relocate from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Companies supplying the Northern Ireland market can continue to have their supply “hub” in Great Britain, a privilege not normally granted to countries outside the EU single market.
Following criticism that the protocol is “undemocratic”, the Northern Ireland assembly, civil society groups and businesses will be invited to participate in “structured dialogues” with the European Commission on the implementation of the hundreds of laws in the EU that apply in the region, although it will not have any decision-making power.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism