EU showing ‘flexibility’ in proposal to reduce Northern Ireland checks to a ‘couple of lorries a day’

Maroš Šefčovič encouraged by Truss seeking negotiated solution to protocol

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator is demonstrating “flexibility” and a “desire to be solution-driven” in proposing ideas on resolving the Northern Ireland protocol issue. Maroš Šefčovič told the Financial Times that physical customs checks across the Irish Sea could be reduced to just a few lorries a day, as he expressed hope that new British prime minister Liz Truss was ready to do a deal over post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Mr Martin said he had spoken to Ms Truss late last week, and they had a good preliminary discussion. He added: “We will meet again on these issues.” He said he believes there is a view “that we should do everything we possibly can to resolve this issue”,

Mr Šefčovič said the trade border would be “invisible” under European Commission plans provided the UK gave EU officials real-time data on trade movements. “If the data are downloaded into the system, when the goods are put on the ferry from Britain...I believe that we can remotely process them while sailing to Northern Ireland,” the European Commission vice-president told the Financial Times in an interview.

Physical checks would only be made “when there is reasonable suspicion of...illegal trade smuggling, illegal drugs or dangerous toys or poisoned food” – typically a “couple of lorries a day”.


He said there was almost no difference between the UK demand for “no checks” and the EU’s offer of “minimum checks, done in an invisible manner”.

Mr Martin also said the war in Ukraine was affecting political cohesion across the European continent. “The fundamental issue at stake is the principle that no large country can determine the territorial integrity or sovereignty of its neighbour irrespective of how small that neighbour is. It is a very basic principle of international law. We have to stand by it and particularly on the European continent we have to stand by it.”

He said that in this context the EU and UK “really should sort this [the protocol dispute] out so that we can focus on the bigger issues geopolitically that we’re facing”. He said the EU and UK were “good partners on these more fundamental issues.”

It comes as the UK and EU have been embroiled in a row over Britain’s proposals to override parts of the controversial post-Brexit treaty as it seeks to reduce trade barriers with the region.

On Wednesday Ms Truss said her preference is for a negotiated solution to the dispute. But she said such a resolution would have to deliver “all of the things we set out” in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament. The legislation would allow ministers to unilaterally scrap the arrangements the UK signed up to as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

In the interview with the Financial Times, Mr Sefcovic said he was “encouraged” by Ms Truss’s recent remarks. “We stand ready to work in an open and constructive and intensive way,” he said.

The treaty is designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. But it has proved deeply unpopular with unionists because it has introduced new trade barriers in the Irish Sea. It has sparked a powersharing crisis at Stormont, with the DUP withdrawing from the Executive in protest.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the Financial Times “renewed negotiations” would likely require “a change of stance” from the EU. “They need to recognise that if we are to arrive at a solution it requires them to accept, and respect, the integrity of the UK, its internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it.” – Additional reporting Reuters

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times