Brussels is reportedly preparing for the worst as it awaits the UK’s response to a series of steps it has proposed to dismantle trade bureaucracy in the Irish Sea.
The European Commission has taken measures to cut government controls by 80 percent and drastically reduce customs procedures for the movement of goods, especially food and agricultural products, between the UK and the island of Ireland.
The UK government welcomed the announcement last night (Wednesday 13 October), signaling that it wanted “intensive talks” to follow up on EU proposals aimed at tackling the disruption caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The EU has now published its proposals in response to those in our command document,” said a UK government spokesman.
“We study the details and of course we will look at them seriously and constructively.
“The next step should be intensive discussions on our two proposals, which are carried out quickly to determine whether there is a common basis for finding a solution.
“Substantial changes, addressing the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, need to be made if we are to achieve a lasting agreement that will require assistance in Northern Ireland.”
The reduced control system proposed by the EU would also eliminate the export ban on certain UK products, including Cumberland sausages, to the region.
The EU plan also provides for a 50 percent reduction in the customs papers required to move products from the UK to Northern Ireland.
In return, the trading bloc called for security measures to be put in place to provide additional reassurance that products supposedly destined for Northern Ireland will not cross the Irish border.
This includes labeling certain products to make it clear that they are only sold in the UK, as well as improved monitoring of supply chain movements and access to real-time trade flow information.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said the bloc had done a lot of hard work to develop an “alternative model” for implementing the protocol.
“We have examined every possible aspect of the protocol and have sometimes gone beyond current EU law,” he said at a press conference in Brussels yesterday.
He added, “With this robust package of practical, imaginative solutions, we can continue to implement the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol for the benefit of all local communities.
“Not only does it cement stability and predictability, an essential ingredient for the local economy to thrive, but it also paves the way for enhanced opportunities.”
While the range of measures would help reduce the day-to-day friction in trade caused by the Protocol, it does not do justice to the UK’s demand for the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Britain’s Brexit Minister Lord Frost has made it clear that the abolition of the court’s oversight role in overseeing the protocol is a red line for the government if a compromise is to be reached.
Under the terms of the protocol agreed between the UK and the EU under the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, the ECJ would be the final arbiter in all future trade disputes between the two parties over the application of the protocol.
The United Kingdom now wants to delete this provision and replace it with independent arbitration.
The European Commission has insisted that it will not move on the ECJ question.
Lord Frost has warned that Britain could suspend parts of the Protocol by triggering the Article 16 mechanism if an acceptable compromise cannot be reached.
He stressed that the reach of the ECJ was a key issue and told the broadcasters: “The problem with the protocol at the moment is that EU law is being applied to the ECJ as enforcement in Northern Ireland without any democratic process. ”
“So, in my opinion, that has to change if we want to find governance arrangements that people can live with.”
The EU plan amounts to a series of counter-proposals in response to a wish list of protocol reforms submitted by the UK government in July.
The proposals from both sides should now form the basis for a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London in the coming weeks.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed between the UK and the EU to bypass the biggest obstacle in the Brexit divorce talks, the Irish land border.
This has been achieved by moving regulatory and customs controls and processes to the Irish Sea.
The agreements have created new economic barriers to the movement of goods from the UK to Northern Ireland.
This has disrupted many businesses in Northern Ireland and has also created a major political headache for the government as trade unionists and loyalists are angry at what they perceive to be a weakening of the Union.
The EU’s proposals were welcomed by Irish politicians last night, with Taoiseach Micheal Martin describing them as “the obvious way forward and the obvious way out of problems”.
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