Proposals can put EU and UK on ‘home stretch’ to resolving NI Protocol row

EU proposals to cut Irish Sea trade red tape could open up the “home stretch” to solving the Northern Ireland Protocol row, Maros Sefcovic has said.

The European Commission vice president urged the UK to work with the bloc to end the stand-off over the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements as he unveiled a series of measures that would slash regulatory checks and dramatically cut customs processes on the movement of goods.

The measures, designed to tackle disruption caused by the protocol, would see an 80% reduction in checks envisaged for retail agri-food products arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The proposed changes also remove the prospect of certain British produce, including Cumberland sausages, being banned from export to the region.

The protocol, which was agreed by the EU and UK to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of island, has created a series of economic barriers on the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The EU plan to ease the resultant trade friction 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.

An anti-NI Protocol sign near the entrance to Larne Port Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

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

Mr Sefcovic, who canvassed the views of politicians and business leaders on a visit to the region last month, said the bloc had put in a lot of hard work to come up with an “alternative model” for implementing the protocol.

“We have explored every possible angle of the protocol and, at times, went beyond current EU law,” he told a press conference in Brussels.

He added: “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.

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

Mr Sefcovic continued: “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.”

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

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic on a visit to Stormont last month Credit: Peter Morrison/PA

However, the measures 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).

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.

Those 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 the UK demand over the role of the ECJ.

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

A lorry leaves a Brexit checking facility at Belfast Port Credit: Niall Carson/PA

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.

The European Commission has insisted it will not move on the ECJ issue.

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

Lord Frost has warned that the UK could move to suspend parts of the protocol, by triggering the Article 16 mechanism, if an acceptable compromise cannot be reached.

The EU plan amounts to a set of counterproposals 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.

Brexit minister Lord Frost is meeting with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic Credit: Aaron Chown/PA

Earlier on Wednesday, Lord Frost insisted the reach of the ECJ was a key issue.

“The problem with the protocol at the moment is that EU law, with the ECJ as the enforcer of it, is applied in Northern Ireland without any sort of democratic process,” he told broadcasters.

“So that, I think, has to change if we’re to find governance arrangements that people can live with.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described the proposals as the EU’s “starting point”.

However, he said that on first inspection they would appear to “fall far short of the fundamental change needed”.

Stormont’s Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill welcomed what she described as the “far-reaching” proposals.

“I think that demonstrates both in word and deed that the EU side are living up to their commitments that they made to both business and civic leaders as well as political leaders,” she said.

The 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.

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.

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

Speaking about the proposals, Alliance Deputy Leader, Stephen Farry MP said he welcomed the proposals:

"It would be an act of folly for opponents of Northern Ireland Protocol to squander the opportunity to provide certainty and stability given by the EU’s proposals," Dr Farry said.

“Alliance will be as pragmatic as possible. We should make the implementation of the Protocol smooth and obtain as many derogations and flexibilities as we can. We have been working for many months towards that across all of the matters addressed in the EU proposals.

"Trust is central to maximising flexibility. These proposals have the potential to address many of the practical issues raised by local businesses and other stakeholders. “Short of the UK returning to the Customs Union and Single Market, the Protocol is not going to be scrapped.

"Opponents of it now have the opportunity to climbdown from unrealistic and undeliverable demands and to provide much need stability and certainty, both for the business community and the political structures.

Meanwhile, the SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood has said that the latest proposals are an accommodation that should be embraced. “The proposals presented by the European Commission today are significant, they go further than many expected and clearly demonstrate that European leaders are stretching themselves in the interests of people and businesses in Northern Ireland," Mr Eastwood said.

“I would encourage political leaders, and particularly the leaders of unionism, to reflect on the very serious efforts made by the European Commission to ease the challenges with trade flows between Northern Ireland and Britain as well as addressing their concerns about democratic deficits.

UUP Leader Doug Beattie said that today marks an important moment in replacing the Protocol.

"The European Union has moved significantly, something many told us was not possible," he said.

"The Ulster Unionist Party has spent years lobbying and putting forward alternatives and we are glad to see the EU acknowledge that serious problems are posed by the Protocol.

“We will consider the EU proposals in full but what is important to us is that anything put forward is not merely a sticking plaster. The Protocol is fundamentally flawed and that must be addressed with long-term solutions.”

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Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin has also backed the EU’s proposals.

The Taoiseach said they were “the obvious way forward and the obvious way out of the issues”.

Mr 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”.