The European Union will table new proposals for the Northern Ireland Protocol next week, European Commission Vice President Maros Šefčovič said on Thursday (7 October).
Speaking at an event in Dublin hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), Šefčovič said the EU was going to “enormous lengths” to resolve concerns by businesses and political leaders in Northern Ireland about the protocol.
“I believe the package of practical solutions that we are putting on the table would be attractive for Northern Ireland and would be, I hope, supported by a majority of stakeholders in Northern Ireland,” he said.
He said the commitment of the EU to the Good Friday Agreement was “absolute” and that the avoidance of a hard border on the island was a “prerequisite”.
The protocol, which introduces customs checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, has been one of the most controversial elements of the Brexit agreement, and is particularly unpopular within the pro–British unionist community.
UK officials have been surprised by the effects of the protocol being implemented, which has caused major disruption to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, and resulted in a number of products being available to purchase in Britain but not in Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister David Frost has urged the EU to agree to a radical overhaul of the protocol, warning that otherwise the UK is likely to invoke Article 16 and suspend its application.
Frost has also played down London’s expectations of what the next EU proposals will offer.
Last week, the four major unionist parties signed a joint statement calling for the protocol to be scrapped. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party – has warned that it might collapse the devolved Northern Ireland executive if its demands over the protocol are not met.
However, privately senior officials from the Ulster Unionist Party and DUP have told EURACTIV that they could live with a compromise. Elections to the Northern Ireland assembly will be held within the next year and current polls suggest that Sinn Fein, which supports a united Ireland, will emerge as the largest party, followed by the UUP.
“The Protocol is the inevitable outcome of Brexit,” said an Ulster Unionist lawmaker.
Several moderate unionists, meanwhile, have told EURACTIV that by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, the protocol allows the province to benefit from its access to the EU market as well as from new UK free trade deals.
In a bid to satisfy the EU’s insistence on ensuring the integrity of its single market, unionists have mooted legislation under which anyone who sells goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland with the view to moving them to Republic would be committing an offence.
“It’s not like Moscow in 1989 but it is limiting consumer choice,” one Unionist politician told EURACTIV. He added that “it will really bite at Christmas when people can’t buy things for their children.”
[Edited by Molly Killeen]