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Northern Ireland Protocol discussions will not be renegotiation, says Sefcovic

Brexit minister David Frost is expected in Brussels tomorrow to meet Maros Sefcovic to discuss ways to break the deadlock.

The Port of Belfast Harbour
The Port of Belfast Harbour
Image: Liam McBurney via PA Images

Updated Oct 14th 2021, 8:10 PM

EUROPEAN COMMISSION VICE president Maros Sefcovic has said discussions around the Northern Ireland Protocol will not be a renegotiation.

The EC has laid out measures to slash 80% of regulatory checks and dramatically cut customs processes on the movement of goods, especially food and farming produce, between Britain and the island of Ireland.

The UK government welcomed the announcement, signalling it wants “intensive talks” to follow the EU’s proposals.

At the same time, however, a spokesman for the government said there have to be “significant changes” to the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement if there is to be a “durable settlement”.

Brexit minister David Frost is expected in Brussels tomorrow to meet Sefcovic to discuss ways to break the deadlock.

Sefcovic spoke to Northern Ireland’s political leaders earlier today. Afterwards, he said he has no mandate to renegotiate the protocol.

“Now we should really do the last mile, work constructively with all the proposals we put on the table, put it finally to bed,” he told BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme.

“I believe that we could be in the home stretch with our proposals on the table and as I said, let’s try to solve all these issues before Christmas because I think that would be the best Christmas gift we can give to the people of Northern Ireland.”

However, Sefcovic added: “I have no mandate to renegotiate the protocol … the withdrawal agreement, protocol and trade and cooperation agreement, we signed it, we ratified it, it’s international law and I think we should respect it.”

Earlier, speaking on BBC2’s Newsnight, EU ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels has gone the “extra mile” and cannot go any further following yesterday’s proposals.

“We went to the limits of what we can do to address the problems of Northern Ireland because we care for Northern Ireland,” he said.

“These problems were caused by Brexit.”

He stressed that the EU cannot accede to a key British demand to remove the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in overseeing the protocol.

“There is no single market without the European Court of Justice. It’s the referee of the single market,” he said.

Frost has previously said the role of European judges is something the UK cannot accept.

But in a sign that he may be willing to compromise, he told peers yesterday that he never used the term “red lines” in his negotiations.

Under the terms of the protocol, which was agreed by the UK and EU as part of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, the ECJ would be the final arbitrator in any future trade dispute between the two parties on the operation of the protocol.

The UK now wants to remove that provision and replace it with an independent arbitration process.

One option reported to be under consideration by Brussels is a reduced role for European judges.

The Times reported that under the plan, disputes would go to an independent arbitration panel, with the ECJ asked to interpret narrow matters of EU law as a last resort after dispute resolution has failed.

British cabinet minister Sajid Javid said ending the role of the ECJ is one of the key points.

The Health Secretary told Sky News: “Looking forward, there should not be a role for the European Court of Justice in any part of the UK and that includes Northern Ireland.

“I think it is an over-legalistic approach that the court has. Lord Frost has been really clear about this with the speech that he made this week. One of the most important issues is to end the role of the ECJ in Northern Ireland.”

The package of proposals already set out by the EU would remove the prospect of certain produce, including sausages, being banned from being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The EU plan also includes a 50% reduction in customs paperwork required to move products across the Irish Sea.

In return, the trading bloc has asked for safeguards to be implemented to provide extra assurances that products said to be destined for Northern Ireland do not end up crossing the Irish border.

These include labelling certain products to make it clear they are for sale in the UK only, and enhanced monitoring of supply chain movements and access to real-time trade flow information.

The EU plan amounts to a set of counter-proposals in response to a wish list of protocol reforms outlined by the UK Government in July.

The proposals from both sides are now set to form the basis of a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London in the weeks ahead.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to sidestep the major obstacle in the Brexit divorce talks – the Irish land border.

It achieved that by shifting regulatory and customs checks and processes to the Irish Sea.

But the arrangements have created new economic barriers on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

This has caused disruption to many businesses in Northern Ireland and has also created a major political headache for the Government, as unionists and loyalists are furious at what they perceive as a weakening of the Union.

First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said he is “frankly baffled” by the UK Government’s stance, adding: “It is their deal, yet so often we hear UK Government ministers talk as though the deal was entirely somebody else’s responsibility.”

He told Sky News: “It’s a very important issue for Wales because our ports face the island of Ireland and trade through our ports is significantly down following Brexit.”

file-photo-dated-111120-of-a-port-of-belfast-sign-at-belfast-harbour-the-eu-will-later-outline-a-range-of-proposals-aimed-at-resolving-the-political-stand-off-over-brexits-northern-ireland-protoco Source: Alamy Stock Photo

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told European Commission vice president Sefcovic earlier today that proposed changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol “fall short of what is needed”.

Speaking after his virtual meeting with Sefcovic, Donaldson said: “We had a useful and honest discussion. I welcomed the change of heart in Brussels with the decision to renegotiate.

“For so long we were told the protocol could not be reopened but the persistent pressing of our case has paid dividends.

“I also explained why the proposals fall short of what is needed.

“These negotiations must not be a missed opportunity. There is a window to get this right. To get a deal which can allow Northern Ireland to, once again, get moving forward.”

Donaldson added: “Short-term fixes will not solve the problems that have beset the United Kingdom internal market.

“Removing some checks today does not solve the divergence problems of tomorrow. State aid and VAT arrangements if left unaltered will be detrimental to Northern Ireland’s long-term prospects.

“We need a sustainable solution which removes the Irish Sea border and restores our place within the United Kingdom.”

Sinn Féin welcomed the new proposals from the EU and is seeking a recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly to demonstrate support for the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Party president Mary Lou McDonald told RTÉ Radio’s News at One that Donaldson and the DUP “do not speak for the vast, vast majority of people in the north of Ireland”.

“The vast majority across all sectors recognise that a protocol was necessary and also now want to work to a situation where that protocol is operable.”

When asked about the number of concessions given to the UK government throughout negotiations, McDonald said every negotiation stance has “an elastic limit and the moment where it runs out of road”.

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On the issue of the ECJ’s role, McDonald added: “I didn’t hear one Unionist, including Jeffrey Donaldson, make mention of the European Court of Justice or its jurisdiction on the Protocol before David Frost mentioned this issue.”

Irish reaction

Yesterday evening, the EU’s proposals were welcomed by political leaders here, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin describing them as “the obvious way forward and the obvious way out of the issues”.

“I trust that it will now be the subject of serious engagement with the British Government and form the basis of a jointly agreed solution to those challenges,” he said.

“Such an outcome is very much in the interests of both the EU and the UK, but most especially of the people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”

Martin said no-one should be under “any illusions” about the importance of keeping all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement in place, and had emphasised this to Johnson.

Martin added that the European Commission had “demonstrated imagination, innovation, and also a listening ear to the people who matter, the people in Northern Ireland who are on the ground dealing with these issues”.

He said: “(In) my last meeting with the British Government, they wanted to give this … they said to me they wanted to give it one final shot.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said he “strongly welcomed” the proposals.

“This is a major effort by the EU to address concerns raised around the protocol,” he said.

“The European Commission has listened to the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland and has produced far-reaching proposals that comprehensively address the practical, genuine issues that matter most to them.

“These proposals represent a real opportunity for Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland – especially those in the business community – want the protocol to work well.”

He added: “We welcome David Frost’s comments that he will engage seriously, fully and positively with the commission.

“The package provides a pathway to resolving all the outstanding issues. Now is the time for the UK Government to engage constructively on the practical solutions being put forward by the commission to the issues that matter most to the people of Northern Ireland.”

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