EU seeks business input over problems with Northern Ireland protocol

Jointly chaired meetings with Britain will focus particularly on agrifood sector

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

 

The European Commission is to involve businesses in Northern Ireland in a bid to reach a breakthrough on post-Brexit arrangements blamed for instability in recent weeks.

The meetings, which will be jointly organised with Britain, will involve civil society and so-called stakeholders, as well as business groups, as Brussels and London seek a way forward to put relations on a more solid footing after a rocky start for the Northern Ireland protocol.

Agrifood will be a particular focus, as officials on both sides prepare for weeks of joint analysis of the impact of the protocol, product by product, in a bid to identify how its implementation can be improved, and whether checks can be tailored according to level of risk.

It comes after Britain’s lead on the issue, David Frost, met his counterpart European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic for a working dinner in Brussels on Thursday night during which the two sides “reviewed” the situation.

No agreement was reached, but both sides said that technical talks would continue and that there was momentum to find a way forward, although they are far apart on some fundamental issues.

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“A number of difficult issues” remain between the two sides, a British government statement read, but intensive discussions in recent weeks “had begun to clarify the outstanding issues”.

The European Commission said in a statement that the meeting took place in a “solutions-driven atmosphere”, and that its priority was to ensure the protocol “is fully implemented for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland, while upholding the integrity of the EU’s single market”.

More flexibility

Outreach to Northern Ireland stakeholders is to be organised by the EU and UK teams in the next two weeks, the commission said.

Britain has been pushing for more flexibility on the protocol to ease checks, and unilaterally extended grace periods on some controls until October, triggering the commission to initiate legal proceedings over a breach of the agreements.

The commission has said the legal action will continue as long as needed.

At the same time, talks will continue to try to ease the impact of the protocol, with London particularly keen to reach a deal to ease the movement of pets between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Progress between the two sides has previously been stuck, with the commission suggesting that most checks would be unnecessary if the UK agreed to align on food, animal and plant standards, something Britain has dismissed as unthinkable as it would require adhering to EU rules. Instead, London has asked the EU to accept its standards as equivalent, which Brussels rules out.

Discussions will now explore whether it might be possible to take a risk-based approach to checks, it is understood. This would involve identifying which goods are at highest risk of entering the broader single market and which are not, and tailoring procedures accordingly.

Britain has long argued that goods destined for supermarkets in Northern Ireland are not at high risk of entering the rest of the single market. The commission has said that it is open to pragmatic solutions, but that any flexibility would only be possible if trust is restored and the protocol fully implemented.