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Here's what the EU is proposing for the NI protocol

The European Commission has not given ground on the UK demand for the removal of the European Court of Justice’s role in policing the protocol.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Oct 13th 2021, 9:30 PM

THE EU HAS unveiled a series of proposals that would slash the red tape burden on Irish Sea trade created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

The European Commission measures would see an 80% reduction in checks envisaged for retail agri-food products arriving in the region from Great Britain.

The requirement to submit documentary information online ahead of shipping the goods will remain, but the EU said it envisages an 80% reduction in both identity checks on lorries arriving at ports and the more intensive physical inspections of their contents.

The proposed changes to the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements would also remove the prospect of certain British produce, including Cumberland sausages, being banned from export to Northern Ireland.

The plan also includes a 50% reduction in customs paperwork required to move products into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

More products and companies would be exempt from customs tariffs as a result of expanding trusted trader arrangements and a concept that differentiates between goods destined for Northern Ireland and those “at risk” of onward transportation into the Irish Republic.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the EU proposals to change the Protocol are a “direct and genuine” response to concerns raised.

He said: “We have listened to, engaged with and heard Northern Irish stakeholders, from political leaders to businesses and a cross-section of civic society.

“Our proposed solutions are a direct and genuine response to concerns they had raised.”

“In effect, we are proposing an alternative model for implementation of the protocol.

“One the one hand the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be facilitated for goods that are to stay in Northern Ireland. On the other, robust safeguards and monitoring mechanisms should be put in place to make sure that they stay in Northern Ireland.”

Sefcovic said the EU’s proposals on customs were “ambitious” and would combine with the relaxations on agri-food checks to effectively create an “express lane” to greatly improve the facilitation of Irish Sea trade.

“With this robust package of practical, imaginative solutions we can continue to implement the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland for the benefit of all communities on the ground,” he said.

“It not only cements stability and predictability – an indispensable ingredient for the local economy to flourish – but also paves the way for enhanced opportunities.”

He added: “We continue to stand united behind Northern Ireland while at the same time remaining determined to protect our internal market.

“Now I invite the UK Government to engage with us earnestly and intensively on all our proposals. With them I’m convinced we could be in the home stretch when it comes to the protocol.”

The EU has also offered to legislate to ensure no disruption to the supply line of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Under the protocol, this supply chain would have been severely disrupted when an ongoing grace period lapses, as Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are in different regulatory zones for pharmaceuticals.

The EU law change would allow GB-based pharma suppliers to maintain their current regulatory arrangements. It would mean companies in GB could continue to act as a hub for the supply of generic medicines to NI, without the need to establish bases in the region.

The EU has said the medicines supply chain issue is not confined to Northern Ireland and applies to other small markets, including the Irish Republic, Malta and Cyprus. The steps being suggested would guarantee pharmaceutical supply chains to all of those markets.

The commission has also pledged to enhance engagement with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, including politicians, business representatives and other members of civic society.

This would see the establishment of structured groups to provide a forum for discussion on key issues related to the implementation of the protocol.

It would also see stakeholders invited to some meetings of the joint UK/EU committees that oversee the protocol. The EU says it also wants to create a stronger link between the Stormont Assembly and the EU/UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly.

It also intends to create a website to show how EU legislation is applicable in Northern Ireland.

However, the proposals contained in four separate papers published by the bloc on Wednesday evening do not offer any concession on a key UK Government demand, the removal of the oversight role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The EU said the proposals were based on flexibilities inherent within the protocol but also went a bit further.

In return for the scaled-back checking regime, the EU has asked for certain 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 of certain products, making clear they are for sale in the UK only, and enhanced monitoring of supply chain movements and access to real-time trade flow information.

It said access to the real-time data, and the construction of new checking facilities at ports in Northern Ireland, were commitments the UK had already made but was yet to deliver on.

While the range of measures would go some way to reducing everyday friction on trade caused by the protocol, they do not address a UK demand over the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

UK Brexit minister Lord Frost has made clear the removal of the ECJ’s oversight function in policing the protocol is a red line for the Government if a compromise deal is to be struck.

Speaking at a press briefing this evening, Maros Sefcovic said the role of the ECJ was mentioned to him only once during discussions and interactions with representatives in Northern Ireland.

Sefcovic said: “Referring to my visit to Northern Ireland, it left me with very lasting impressions and I really met a lot of stakeholders and I saw big positive excitement about the opportunities dual market access represents.

“Many of the proposals we are putting on the table were indeed inspired by one of the first meetings I had in Northern Ireland with the Business Brexit Working Group. I heard from the representatives of the business communities, I heard from business leaders at Stormont, I heard from representatives of civic society.

“I can tell you that in all the meetings I had, and I had quite a few interactions, exchanges and discussions, the issue of the European Court of Justice was mentioned once.

“When I first heard about this issue it was probably in the Command Paper which was published by the UK Government just before the summer break.”

ECJ issue

Under the terms of the deal struck by the UK and EU in 2019, 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.

Sefcovic has insisted that the EU will not move on the ECJ issue.

He has pointed out that Northern Ireland would be unable to retain single market access – a key provision of the protocol – if the arrangement was not subject to oversight by European judges.

It is anticipated that a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London will take place in the weeks ahead.

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The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to sidestep the major obstacle in the Brexit divorce talks – the border.

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

The arrangements have created new economic barriers on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.

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

However, other businesses have benefited from the terms of the protocol, which provides traders in the North unique unfettered access to sell within the UK internal market and EU single market.

Under the original terms of the protocol, the North was to fall within the EU regulatory zone for medicines from 2022 – a move that would have restricted the ability to import products from Great Britain.

UK Reaction

The UK Government has said “intensive talks” should follow the European Commission’s proposals to change the Northern Ireland Protocol.

A British Government spokesperson said: “The EU have now published their proposals in response to those in our Command Paper. We are studying the detail and will of course look at them seriously and constructively.

“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.”

With reporting by Cónal Thomas and Hayley Halpin

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