The European Union is prepared to move ahead unilaterally with legal changes to ensure the flow of medicines into Northern Ireland if agreement with the United Kingdom cannot be found, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.
Discussions are ongoing this week between the EU and UK teams to try to come to an agreement, with lead negotiators Maros Sefcovic and David Frost set to meet twice in a bid to make progress by Christmas.
Mr Coveney said it was possible that there could be a breakthrough on medicines by then, but that broader issues including on customs and food, plant and animal checks would not be agreed by the end of this year.
“Between now and Christmas it is possible I hope to find agreement on the medicines issue,” Mr Coveney said.
“I think the EU is anxious to move ahead unilaterally on that, if the UK doesn’t agree an approach, because certainly the EU wants to ensure that medicines can flow freely into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
“The other issues we know in all likelihood are not going to be resolved between now and the end of the year: SPS checks, customs checks and a range of other issues.”
Time is short on medicines, as a grace period on enforcing EU standards on medicines that are shipped from Britain into Northern Ireland is set to expire on January 1st.
On Friday a British official briefed London-based journalists that the UK government no longer considered the removal of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as an arbiter of disputes over Northern Ireland's post-Brexit arrangements to be a red line in negotiations.
However, chief negotiator Mr Frost subsequently tweeted that the issue of governance “including the Court of Justice” remained an issue, adding: “We will not find a durable solution that does not deal with all these problems.”
Mr Coveney said that the briefing had been “retracted”.
“Clearly there was a briefing that has essentially been retracted. So look, I think we shouldn’t make a big deal of it, to be honest,” he said.
“I think we have to go on what what David Frost says. He’s the chief negotiator; he speaks for the prime minister on Brexit issues.”
Before it was retracted, the dropping of the ECJ red line was heralded as an encouraging sign that a deal could be near, particularly as it was followed by the granting of 23 extra licences to French fishing boats by the UK government, easing tensions on another contentious issue.
The government of prime minister Boris Johnson warned in recent months that it would use the sensitive article 16 clause to unilaterally suspend the enforcement of the post-Brexit arrangements designed to avoid a hard border unless concessions were granted, but subsequently appeared to move away from the idea.