Majority of checks on goods can go in bid to ease working of protocol, says Sefcovic

Taoiseach describes move by EU as ‘serious response’ to the challenges and concerns

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said that the ECJ had only been first raised by Britain as a problem this July, long after the Protocol had been agreed and entered into force. Video: EU

 

Most checks on goods from Britain destined for Northern Irish supermarket shelves would be dropped and half of customs formalities slashed under new proposals unveiled by the European Commission.

Drawn up in a bid to ease the implementation of the North’s post-Brexit arrangements and settle the issue in the face of calls from the British government for change, the proposals were based on discussions with civic and business stakeholders about what could be improved.

“We have completely turned our rules upside down and inside out,” to find solutions, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said as he unveiled four papers laying the groundwork for discussions with London.

“If I’m talking about 80 per cent reduction in checks, about half of the customs formalities to be reduced, about express lanes, about all really bespoke solutions, I think that it’s quite obvious that we are really doing our our utmost. And I hope that this will be reciprocated by our UK partners.”

The proposals include a change to EU law to allow medicines to continue to be distributed from British hubs, special exceptions to allow fresh meat goods deemed to be important to ‘national identity’, and formal structures to involve Northern Irish stakeholders and authorities in overseeing the arrangements.

Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost had warned in a speech on the eve of the launch that his government could not accept any proposals that retained the European Court of Justice’s oversight of the EU regulations that apply to Northern Ireland.

Red line issue

This is a red line issue for Brussels as it underpins the EU’s legal order, and Sefcovic revealed when asked at a press conference that the ECJ had only been first raised by Britain as a problem this July, long after the Protocol had been agreed and entered into force.

UK sources insisted that the ECJ was an intrinsic part of the problem with the Protocol, which they describe as too discredited among the unionist community to be salvageable.

“Significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree a durable settlement which commands support in Northern Ireland,” a UK government spokeswoman said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin welcomed the proposals as a “serious response to the challenges and concerns that have arisen” while Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described them as “far-reaching proposals that comprehensively address the practical, genuine issues that matter most” to the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Martin said the proposals will “pave the way for a very serious engagement” and represent “a very significant opportunity”.

Mr Martin said Mr Sefcovic had briefed him ahead of the publication of the proposals.

“He has come back with a very comprehensive set of proposals. I now believe that the United Kingdom Government should engage with the European Union Commission on this package of proposals and should work jointly with the European Union to arrive at a joint solution in relation to this issue.”

Mr Martin said the proposals demanded an equivocal response from the UK which should commence now.

‘Serious piece of work’

The Taoiseach described the proposals as “a very serious piece of work.”

“I think it paves the way for a very serious engagement. These proposals cover animal and food, the SPS area, medicines and customs and also then imaginative proposals around involvement of stakeholders in Northern Ireland on an ongoing basis on these particular issues.”

Mr Martin asked “all parties to give them serious consideration and engage in a process that can lead to a positive outcome.”

There was also significant movement on customs, he said.

Mr Martin said it was a significant opportunity to resolve the issues at hand and could “lead to restoration of political stability, while also facilitating continued access of Northern Ireland business, industry and jobs”.

“This demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the European Commission is in solution mode,” he said.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson immediately poured cold water on the proposals, saying they “clearly fall a long way short of being the basis of a sustainable solution” and again called for the Protocol to be replaced.

The EU needed to “re-double their efforts” in negotiations with the UK “to replace the Protocol with new arrangements”, he said.

“Short-term fixes that reduce checks and potentially give the appearance of easements compared to the current time will not of themselves solve the problem of divergence within the United Kingdom,” Mr Donaldson said.

Referring to British opposition to the European Court of Justice being the final arbiter in disputes, he said a solution “must also deal with future governance arrangements for dispute resolution, including where changes to EU laws have the potential to result in further divergence”.

“Other less talked about aspects of the current Protocol - State Aid and VAT arrangements- if left unaltered will be detrimental to Northern Ireland’s long term prospects,” he added.

‘Window of opportunity’

But he said there was “a window of opportunity to get this right”.

Stormont deputy first minister and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said the proposals are a “mark of progress, but it is up to others now as to whether they engage with the process”.

“I hope we can find solutions and find the certainty that businesses here are desperately looking for,” she added.

“This represents progress and very much fulfills the commitments in the protocol to protect the all island economy, to ensure no hard border on this island and make sure we protect the Good Friday Agreement.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the EU proposals offer a “clear landing zone” after turbulence over the protocol, and urged unionist leaders to embrace the compromises.

“The proposals presented by the European Commission today are significant, they go further than many expected and clearly demonstrate that European leaders are stretching themselves in the interests of people and businesses in Northern Ireland,” he said.

The proposals show that Brussels “has been listening to the concerns of people in the North, not the fantasy red lines drawn by the British Government,” he added.

“I would encourage political leaders, and particularly the leaders of unionism, to reflect on the very serious efforts made by the European Commission to ease the challenges with trade flows between Northern Ireland and Britain as well as addressing their concerns about democratic deficits,” the Foyle MP said.

“The DUP, in particular, need to decide if they’re on the side of people and businesses here or in the pocket of Boris Johnson.

“No one, save perhaps for (TUV leader) Jim Allister, has raised the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice as an issue because its remit is so confined to the operation of European Internal Market law that it poses no threat to prosperity here.

“Jeopardising our access to the European Single Market on the basis of nativist fuelled rhetoric about European courts would be a serious mistake.”

UUP Leader Doug Beattie said the European Union “has moved significantly, something many told us was not possible.”

“This must only be the start of discussions,” he added.

“The EU proposals are not the only ones in existence and the UK Government’s command paper must be considered alongside them. This cannot be a one sided or imbalanced process.”