The EU is proposing to sweep away most checks on goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in a bid to ensure smoother trade within the UK and end a protracted post-Brexit dispute with London.
But EU Brexit chief, Maros Sefcovic, warned that the “far-reaching” offer to cut around 80 per cent of checks on animal and plant-based products and half the customs paperwork was the final chance to solve the problem.
“There will be no other package. This is it,” he told the Financial Times. He said the proposals went “pretty far” to meet UK concerns but he was willing to negotiate within the framework he had set out.
The European Commission’s proposal come in response to UK demands for a radical rewriting of the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the UK’s EU withdrawal agreement designed to avoid a return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
London has warned that the protocol is not sustainable in its current form because of the extent to which trade is being impeded and the European Court of Justice acting as arbiter of disputes.
Sefcovic acknowledged that the protocol had caused disruption in the region. He produced four papers addressing areas of concern to businesses and unionist politicians: sanitary and phytosanitary controls; customs; medicines; and democratic participation.
Trucks supplying retailers could head through “express lanes” at ports which would exempt them from inspections, provided the goods were intended for sale in Northern Ireland and labelled as such. A lorry with 100 different food products would only need one certificate, instead of 100 as now.
Businesses importing products of animal origin such as eggs and cheese would also be freed from form-filling and a ban on chilled meats, such as sausages and ham, would end.
On customs, importers would only need to provide basic information about products at low risk of entering the Republic and, therefore, the EU’s borderless single market.
The EU will also legislate to allow medicines from Great Britain to enter Northern Ireland.
However, Brussels remains wary that the region could provide a back door into the single market for produce that would normally pay tariffs or be banned. London has signed a trade deal with Australia, where food standards differ from those in the EU.
So it is demanding that London collaborates with tighter controls over the origin of food and labelling.
Sefcovic said some checks were necessary because the UK wanted to diverge from the rules of the single market, while Northern Ireland remained within it to avoid a hard border with the Republic.
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He also said Brussels did not yet have access to UK databases on all goods movements to Northern Ireland in real time, as the protocol requires. Nor had the UK set up border posts as promised. Sefcovic said it was time for the UK to implement what it had signed up to.
He dismissed UK Brexit minister Lord David Frost’s demand that a joint arbitration panel should replace the ECJ as the arbiter of disputes. Without ECJ oversight, Northern Ireland could not remain in the single market, he said.
While the two sides remain ostensibly far apart on the question of the court’s oversight of the deal, there is hope in some quarters that a compromise could be found where the ECJ’s role is confined solely to arbitrating matters of EU law — not ruling on the substance of any dispute.
One template being suggested in Whitehall is the governance agreement that covers Swiss-EU relations, although EU officials said such systems would still leave the ECJ “at the apex” of the arbitration system.
Some British officials wonder whether the demand on the ECJ can be traded for other concessions from Brussels.
They were buoyed by the EU’s shift in stance but wanted clarity on just how broad the implementation of changes would be, and how many goods would be affected, describing it as a “best effort” but still unclearly defined.
And many believe that despite Brussels’ offer, UK prime minister Boris Johnson will deliver on his threat to activate Article 16 of the protocol to suspend some of its provisions given the gulf that remains between the two sides’ red lines.
Sefcovic expects to meet Frost on Friday in Brussels to begin intensive talks and aims to strike a deal by the end of the year.
The Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group said the proposals went “some way” towards solving supply problems but it would “reserve judgment until we have seen both legal and technical texts”.