The European Union offered the UK on Wednesday (13 October) a package of measures aimed at brokering a compromise to the long–running dispute over trade to Northern Ireland but without meeting London’s demands on the role of the European Court of Justice.
The offer, which appears to be more generous than the UK had initially expected, includes more flexible rules on food, dairy products, plant and animal health, known as sanitary and phytosanitary issues, which the Commission says will lead to approximately an 80% reduction in customs checks.
The Commission proposal would also leave the existing rules on the supply of medicines from Britain to Northern Ireland untouched, a key concern of the UK government.
Meanwhile, the EU executive contends that the creation of an “Express Lane” for the movement of goods will result in a 50% reduction in paperwork faced by businesses.
In a bid to address the so–called ‘democratic deficit’ in Northern Ireland, whereby it will be continue to be subject to EU single market rules that it had no say over, the Commission has proposed the creation of structured groups with experts to discuss EU measures related to the implementation of the Protocol.
However, the protocol would still be subject, ultimately, to the European Court of Justice, which the UK has identified as one of its ‘red lines’.
In a statement, the UK government spokesperson said that “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.”
The spokesperson added that “intensive” talks between the UK and European Commission should follow in the coming weeks in a bid to reach a deal.
UK officials have told EURACTIV that the sustainability of the protocol cannot be addressed without tackling its governance, and want to see the Luxembourg–based Court replaced with a new arbitration panel.
The Northern Ireland protocol keeps the province in the EU’s single market for goods since Britain’s departure from the EU, meaning its exports to the rest of the 27-nation bloc face no customs checks, tariffs or paperwork.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who oversees post-Brexit relations with Britain, has said the arrangement allows Northern Irish businesses to enjoy the best of both worlds.
However, the result is an effective customs border in the Irish Sea, causing trade diversion from the rest of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland, say UK officials. It is also deeply unpopular with businesses in Northern Ireland, as well as the province’s pro-British unionist community.
Sefcovic said the package should not be seen as a “take it or leave it” offer, but the foundation for joint agreement with Britain.
The Commission says that, in return for concessions, the EU wants proper sharing of live data, reinforced monitoring of supply chains and labelling to ensure British products did not slip into the EU single market via a Northern Ireland back door.
However, the executive Commission will not open up for renegotiation the protocol.
Sefcovic described the proposals as “our genuine response to their concerns.”
“We are looking forward to engaging earnestly and intensively with the UK government, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland,” he added.
“We would like to put the difficulties of the protocol behind us,” a UK official told EURACTIV. However, he added that the status of the EU Court was “the apex of the problem”.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told Newstalk radio station that the EU was in “solution mode” and the British government had a responsibility to follow suit.
“It takes two to tango,” he said.
UK Brexit Minister David Frost said in a speech on Tuesday that London would be ready to discuss the proposals “whatever they say”, but also demanded a new “forward-looking” protocol, without oversight from European judges.
Sefcovic said oversight by the European Court of Justice was the price of access to the European single market.