The EU has today offered to remove many of the post-Transition checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland as it agrees to ease the implementation of the NI Protocol.
Chief EU Protocol negotiator, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, unveiled the EU’s response to Britain’s concerns in a speech to the European Parliament this afternoon.
The EU said its offer to compromise was in response to HM Government’s Command Paper, published on July 21, calling for major changes to the Protocol.
It comes the day after a speech in Lisbon by Lord Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, warning it would be a “historic misjudgement” if the EU did not consider scrapping and replacing the existing Protocol.
EU rejects call on ECJ
However, Lord Frost’s call yesterday for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to lose its role as the arbiter of EU law has been rejected. The EU insists the ECJ will retain its central role in arbitrating any disputes arising over moving goods in and out of NI – if they are governed by Single Market rules.
HM Government is “studying the detail and will of course look at them seriously and constructively,” a spokesperson said.
‘We’ve implemented the Protocol’
Lord Frost today defended the UK’s implementation of the Protocol.
“Look at our actions – we’ve spent hundreds of millions on implementing this Protocol," he told the BBC.
This includes setting up the Trader Support Service and the Movement Assistance Scheme for agri-food, Lord Frost said. "The problems we now have come from implementing the Protocol, not from not implementing it."
EU proposals in summary
1) Customs checks
- The EU is offering to scrap up to 50% of customs checks on goods entering NI – in defiance of French concerns
- A broader definition of what products from Britain are regarded as “not at risk” of entering the single market from NI – that is, the Republic of Ireland
2) Safety checks
- As well as ending EU prohibition of British sausages and garden plants going into NI, the EC is offering to remove more than half the checks on meat and plants. This could reduce sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks to what Brussels regards as a very low level
- The EC will effectively offer unhindered access for ‘national identity’ food products (i.e. sausages) though labelling will be required
- The EC proposes amendments to EU law over medicines to ensure generic and life-saving drugs licensed in GB move freely between GB and NI
- The EC will formalise a structured dialogue between the EU and key stakeholders to ensure NI has a say in Protocol legislation
Changed, not renegotiated
Politico reports that the offer is for changes, but not a complete reworking, of the Protocol.
Sefcovic and EU officials will travel to London on Thursday 14 October to begin discussions on the offer with his counterpart Lord Frost.
According to a senior EU diplomat, debate within the Commission over the revised proposal was highly contentious and only signed off on Monday.
Sefcovic’s speech was, an EU official said, an address the people of Northern Ireland. “This package is for Northern Ireland. It’s not for London,” the official said. “It’s not designed to cater for Lord Frost’s every wish.”
The proposals are being presented as a starting point for a discussion and are not tabled on a “take it or leave it” basis, with Sefcovic asking Lord Frost to work with the EU to flesh out the ideas.
Commentators have started to scrutinise the proposals, with journalist Tony Connelly of Irish broadcaster RTE unpicking some of the customs implications in a Twitter thread:
Connolly says that “simplifications and relaxations” will allow for the free flow of SPS goods into NI, with chilled meats control free aside from the need for labelling
- Large, mixed loads of animal-based products will need only one Export Health Certificate rather than several
- Goods deemed not at risk of entering the Single Market will have a zero customs value and minimal customs requirements
- Connolly reports officials saying the new flexibilities are conditional “on a deeper sharing of data, both UK and private sector, which will give EU officials a real-time picture of what goods are entering NI from GB”
- Therefore large retailers would have a greater role in ensuring market surveillance and traceability of goods
- The measures forsee express lanes at Northern Irish ports for trucks carrying goods which do not require identity or physical checks
The NI Retail Consortium’s Aodhan Connolly is positive about the proposals, and customs expert Dr Anna Jersewska thinks the EU’s proposals address most of the UK’s concerns, saying they represented “Significant simplifications for imports into NI. A far-reaching proposal.”
The thorny issue remains around the UK’s demand that the ECJ should lose its role as the arbiter of EU law, but the BBC’s Katy Adler believes a Swiss style arrangement could square that circle.
UK government response
HM Government responded to the proposals this evening (Wednesday 13 October):
"The next step should be intensive talks on both our sets of proposals, rapidly conducted, to determine whether there is common ground to find a solution.
“Significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree a durable settlement which commands support in Northern Ireland.
“We need to find a solution which all sides can get behind for the future, which safeguards the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and which puts the UK-EU relationship on a stronger footing. We are ready to work hard with this in mind."