European Union officials have told Britain it must set out its plans for customs and other checks under the Northern Ireland protocol, as Northern business representatives urged Westminster to offer more clarity. Both the EU and Britain described the first meeting of a specialised committee on the protocol as constructive but the European Commission warned that time was running out.
“As time is short, the commission underlines the importance of the UK setting out its plans with regard to all implementation measures prescribed by the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and providing a detailed timetable. The exchanges in the specialised committee now urgently need to be followed up by tangible measures,” it said.
Earlier, the commission told member states that the Northern Ireland protocol was the biggest challenge in implementing the withdrawal agreement governing Britain’s exit from the EU. In a technical note seen by The Irish Times, the commission said the most politically sensitive issue required the most extensive adaptations by businesses and needed the most timely preparation.
"To avoid disruptions of business activity, the United Kingdom should urgently engage with the business community in Northern Ireland, as businesses must be able to prepare for the new requirements well in advance. The commission services are available to provide any assistance that may be required," the note says.
“The commission expects the United Kingdom to provide the requested details, and detailed timelines, on the implementation measures it intends to take as a matter of urgency. The commission also expects the United Kingdom to enter into technical implementation discussions with the relevant commission services immediately.”
Thursday’s meeting, which was conducted virtually, was co-chaired by officials from Britain and the European Commission and attended by Irish and Northern Irish officials and representatives from a number of other member states.
“The UK was clear that our approach at all times will be focused on protecting the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and gains of the peace process, and on preserving Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. UK officials reaffirmed our commitment to complying with our legal obligations under the protocol, just as we expect the EU to comply with theirs,” the British government said in a statement.
MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs committee on Thursday heard calls from business, farming and retail representatives in the North for more clarity about how Britain plans to implement the protocol.
Aodhan Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the details needed to be pinned down and businesses needed to hear how the cost of extra paperwork would be mitigated.
“If we don’t have those mitigations there is a simple equation. If the new costs because of this protocol are higher than the profit margin, either the product or the business model becomes unviable. It is as simple as that.”