The EU is ready to table new legislation to guarantee the continued supply of medicines to Northern Ireland, after the latest round of talks between the UK and EU brought ‘progress’ but no agreement, according to negotiators.
On Friday, Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann said that he expected to see EU proposals “this side of Christmas”.
EU and UK officials have been attempting to negotiate a new compromise on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol for several months.
After the latest round of talks between UK Brexit minister David Frost and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, the two sides said that “limited progress” had been made on the supply of medicines but that an agreement had still not been reached.
The Protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, and introduced customs checks on products entering from Britain.
Northern Ireland receives most of its medicines and medical supplies from Britain. However, since the UK government has extended grace periods, checks and controls have not yet been imposed on the medical supplies.
Northern Ireland’s health department has been notified that 910 medicines were due to be withdrawn, with a further 2,400 at risk, should the checks regime come into force.
Frost and Sefcovic are set to meet again on 15 and 17 December, in the hope of making “worthwhile progress”, said Frost. The talks are not now expected to be concluded before the end of the year.
“It’s crunch time for medicines, with the Commission ready to amend EU legislation,” tweeted Šefčovič following the meeting. “We continue to work hard to turn our proposals into real benefits for all communities in NI,” he added.
The rhetoric has become softer from both sides in recent weeks, with UK officials playing down the prospect of suspending the protocol and the Commission indicating that it would unilaterally guarantee supplies of medicines to Northern Ireland.
Reports on Friday suggested that the UK was ready to drop its objections to the oversight role of the European Court of Justice and had agreed to limit the negotiations to the practical issues causing problems in Northern Ireland such as access to medicines and the burden of customs and regulatory checks on goods.
A senior British official on Friday briefed London-based EU journalists that “no one is demonstrating on the streets of Belfast” in protest against the role of the ECJ.
However, in his statement on Friday, Frost insisted that he had “underlined the need for movement on all the difficult issues created by the protocol, including customs, agrifood rules and the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).”
“We will not find a durable solution that does not deal with all these problems,” he added.