Deep changes to the checks required at ports and airports in Northern Ireland on goods arriving from Britain are not possible, the European Commission has told London.
Carve-outs to ease the movement of seed potatoes and pets would only be possible if the United Kingdom aligned its regulations in these areas with the EU, the European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic wrote in a letter on the eve of a meeting in London.
The letter was a response to a laundry list of demands to lessen checks on goods arriving in the North sent last week by British cabinet minister Michael Gove.
Mr Sefcovic and Mr Gove, the co-chairs of the joint EU-UK committee that oversees the implementation of these arrangements, are due to meet on Thursday to discuss the issue amid tensions over Northern Ireland’s new arrangements.
The Democratic Unionist Party has launched a campaign to call for the scrapping of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was designed to reconcile a hard Brexit with the need to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.
However, the current implementation of checks on goods from Britain at entry points into Northern Ireland are inadequate to live up to what the UK has already agreed to, Mr Sefcovic wrote.
He pointed to “very few identity checks” and limited physical checks apart from on live animals, live fish and plants, while packaging is not labelled, and consignments are entering Northern Ireland “without being declared or without valid certificates”.
He added that he was “concerned” that UK authorities had not yet granted EU representatives with real-time access to IT systems, as was agreed last year to allow the bloc to verify that there is adequate control of goods entering the Single Market.
Nevertheless, these are “teething problems” and it should be possible to swiftly fix them, Mr Sefcovic wrote.
But he left little hope that the EU will agree to wide-ranging exemptions to checks requested by Mr Gove last week.
In particular, “blanket derogations” on a ban on high-risk fresh meat products from outside the EU “cannot be agreed beyond what the protocol foresees already”, Mr Sefcovic wrote, noting that the UK had already agreed to work with supermarkets to adjust their supply chains so that they comply with the rules.
The requests from Britain for changes received a cool reception in Brussels, where they were seen as asking too much and seeking to capitalise on a blunder by the European Commission last month in which it signalled it was ready to override part of the Northern Ireland settlement, before hastily reversing course.