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 British calls for change, the proposals were based on discussions with local civic and business stakeholders.
“We have completely turned our rules upside down and inside out” to find solutions, commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said as he unveiled four papers laying the groundwork for discussions with London.
“I think that it’s quite obvious that we are really doing 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 seamlessly distributed from British hubs; special exceptions for trade in meat goods deemed to be important to “national identity”; express lanes, and formal structures to involve Northern Irish stakeholders and authorities in overseeing the arrangements.
As much as 80 per cent of checks on retail goods originating in Britain would be abolished under the plans, which were pushed through by Sefcovic despite reservations by some EU member states and officials within the commission who feared they went too far.
If the proposals are to come into force however, the commission will require Britain to fully implement aspects of the protocol that it had agreed to but has yet to enact, such as sharing real-time customs data and building permanent border infrastructure.
The papers are expected to form the basis of talks with Britain in the coming weeks or months, with the EU expressing hope that the matter could be settled by the end of the year.
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 (ECJ) oversight of the EU regulations that apply to Northern Ireland.
It is a demand seen as impossible for Brussels to concede, as it underpins the EU’s legal order, and Sefcovic said it had not been raised during the protocol negotiations and had hardly featured as an issue on his recent visit to Northern Ireland to meet with stakeholders.
“In all these discussions, the issue of the European Court of Justice was mentioned once,” he told journalists, adding that he first heard it mentioned in July.
UK sources have insisted that the ECJ is an intrinsic part of the problem with the protocol, which they describe as too discredited among the unionist community to be salvageable in its current form.
“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 in response to the launch.
The proposals were welcomed by the Government, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin describing them as a “serious response to the challenges and concerns that have arisen”, while Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said they were “far-reaching proposals that comprehensively address the practical, genuine issues that matter most” to the people of Northern Ireland.
Industry figures in the North said it was clear that the commission had taken their suggestions on board. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the ideas “go further than many expected”, while UUP leader Doug Beattie said the EU “has moved significantly”.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the proposals “clearly fall a long way short”, though he welcomed them as an “acknowledgement that the NI protocol has not worked” and backed efforts to find more far-reaching solutions in the coming talks.