The EU on Wednesday offered to reduce customs checks and paperwork on British products intended for Northern Ireland in the hope of averting a new Brexit-related spat.
The EU put forward a host of proposals in a bid to solve problems in post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland that London says are reigniting inter-community tensions.
A team of EU negotiators on Wednesday delivered the plans to London a day after the UK’s Brexit minister David Frost said the current deal — known as the Northern Ireland Protocol — should be ripped up.
“I have listened to and engaged with Northern Irish stakeholders. Today’s proposals are our genuine response to their concerns,” said European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.
“We are looking forward to engaging earnestly and intensively with the UK government, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland.”
Although the EU says it refuses to renegotiate the protocol, a statement said the plans were “a different model” for its implementation and would alleviate trade problems “to a significant extent”.
Designing the protocol was a major source of friction in Britain’s drawn-out divorce from the European Union after it voted to leave the bloc in 2016.
Both sides say they want to preserve peace and stability by avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, which is split between the EU-member the Republic of Ireland and the UK province.
The UK said it would look at the proposals “seriously and constructively” and called on both sides to engage in “intensive talks” rapidly.
“We need to find a solution which all sides can get behind for the future, which safeguards the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and which puts the UK-EU relationship on a stronger footing,” the UK government spokesperson added.
– ‘Far short’ –
Since the Brexit trade arrangements kicked in, Britain has turned sour on the terms it accepted in the heat of its divorce that created a de facto trade border within the United Kingdom.
This has required new checkpoints at ports to stop the risk of goods from England, Scotland and Wales getting into the EU by the back door.
But the British government points to pro-UK unionists who fear that the checkpoints strengthen pro-Irish republicans’ case for a united Ireland and threaten the Good Friday peace deal.
Jeffrey Donaldson, head of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, said the EU proposals were a “starting point” but fell “far short of the fundamental change needed”.
London has asked for a complete rewrite of the protocol, including ditching the EU court’s role in resolving conflicts, which is a non-starter for the Europeans.
To ease the frictions, the EU released four texts that zeroed in on a number of issues, including complaints of constrained medicine supplies, overzealous food safety checks and too much paperwork.
Taken together, the solutions would create an “express lane” for the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the EU said.
All the while, “robust monitoring and enforcement” would remain in order to protect the EU from health and security threats, it said.
– Sausage truce –
The proposals would solve the so-called sausage war in which UK authorities accused the EU of purist food safety rules that would deny Northern Ireland chilled meats.
To keep British-made sausages on the shelves, the UK unilaterally extended post-Brexit grace periods that allowed for their import into Northern Ireland.
Looming over the talks is Article 16 of the protocol — which gives either side the right to say it wants to suspend parts of the trading arrangement if they believe they are flawed.
Britain has threatened to use that provision if the EU does not change its attitude on not renegotiating the protocol.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)