By David Young, Gavin Cordon and Cate McCurry, PA
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 per cent reduction in checks envisaged for retail agri-food products arriving in the region from Great Britain.
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 the North.
The plan also includes a 50 per cent 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 Republic.
The EU has also offered to legislate to ensure no disruption to the supply line of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The commission has also pledged to enhance engagement with stakeholders in the North, including politicians, business representatives and other members of civic society.
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 the North 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 the North, were commitments the UK had already made but was yet to deliver on.
One EU official described the package of measures as a “very substantial, very meaningful and very impactful set of ideas” aimed at addressing practical problems with the implementation of the protocol.
The official said it went “far beyond tinkering around the edges”.
“It proposes a different model for the implementation of the protocol,” said the official.
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.
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.
An EU official 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.
The official urged the UK to be “realistic and pragmatic” and said if it stuck to its demand on the ECJ it would create a “very big gap” between the respective positions of London and Brussels.
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 official said: “These proposals are significant, they’re extremely far reaching, they propose a different model of implementation of this protocol, which we think is better suited to the situation that we see in Northern Ireland.
“But should the UK insist on its constitutional concern then there remains a very big gap between the ideas that we’re putting on the table today and what the UK government is asking for.
“So it’s a call for the UK to be realistic in its demand and to focus on providing certainty, stability and predictability in Northern Ireland rather than focus on these high level constitutional issues.
“And if the UK government shows that kind of pragmatism, then we think that there is a way through that.
“Of course, we hope for the best but we prepare for the worst and we can’t exclude that the UK will nevertheless use Article 16.”
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.
Earlier on Wednesday, Lord Frost insisted the reach of the European Court of Justice (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.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin backed the EU’s proposals.
“If everyone is operating in good faith, and if the focus is on addressing disruption in trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, then these proposals address the problem and respect the treaties we all agreed to,” he 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 UK 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.