EU to hold talks with UK on Northern Ireland border plan
The European Union and the UK braced for a new round of negotiations over trade barriers in Northern Ireland, after a British challenge and fresh concessions from the bloc signalled glimmers of progress in defusing tensions.
The two sides will talk in London over the coming days, with Maros Šefčovič , the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, voicing optimism that in the next weeks the two sides “will jointly arrive at an agreed solution that Northern Ireland truly deserves.”
Šefčovič unveiled a set of proposed adjustments to the Northern Ireland protocol on Wednesday that would slash customs checks into the territory by half and cut sanitary inspections on many retail goods including ham and sausages by 80%.
“We have put a lot of hard work into this package, explored every possible angle of the protocol, and at times went beyond current EU law,” Šefčovič said on Wednesday evening at a news conference. “In effect, we are proposing an alternative model for implementation of the protocol.”
The EU’s proposals, which offer significant concessions on the protocol that governs the movement of goods in and out of Northern Ireland, offered the prospect a trade war could be averted, but the bloc’s offer didn’t address key UK demands, including the oversight of the European Court of Justice.
ECJ's role a sticking point
The UK government said it will study the new EU proposal seriously. “The next step should be intensive talks on both our sets of proposals, rapidly conducted, to determine whether there is common ground to find a solution,” it said in a statement.
But the issue of ECJ oversight is likely to be a major point of contention in the negotiations, with a British cabinet minister saying on Thursday that it needs to be removed wholesale from the protocol.
“There should not be a role for the European Court of Justice in any part of the UK, that includes Northern Ireland,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Sky News. “One of the most important issues is the role of the ECJ in Northern Ireland.”
One potential compromise could involve limiting the ECJ’s role in resolving disputes, The Times reported.
As part of the UK’s departure from the bloc, Britain signed up to the protocol, which kept the province in the EU’s single market - unlike the rest of the UK This allowed the UK to shed EU regulations without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Šefčovič’s package, described by EU officials as not being a take-it or leave-it offer, leaves a host of sticking points for the new talks. Failure to clinch a resolution could pave the way to tit-for-tat economic retaliation, reopening the wounds from the fraught Brexit negotiations.
Process for medicines unchanged
The EU procedures for medicines would remain largely unchanged, allowing medications, including generics, to be brought in from the UK without going through any additional checks regulatory hurdles when they reach Northern Ireland.
“On one hand, the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be facilitated for goods that are to stay in Northern Ireland,” Šefčovič said. “On the other, robust safeguards and monitoring mechanisms should be put in place to make sure they stay in Northern Ireland.”
The EU insists it won’t renegotiate the accord, which is a binding international treaty, despite UK Brexit minister David Frost saying in a speech on Tuesday that the protocol is flawed and offering a replacement “forward-looking” version.
But the EU isn’t ready to accept Frost’s rejection of the authority of the European Court of Justice over trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, EU officials said. The ECJ issue isn’t raised by stakeholders and citizens in Northern Ireland, said one EU diplomat.
“It’s very clear that you cannot have access to the single market without the supervision of the ECJ,” Šefčovič said. “But I think that we should really put aside this business of the red lines, the business of deadlines, real or artificial, and we should really focus on what we hear from the stakeholders and the people in Northern Ireland.”
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