The story rumbles on.
The story rumbles on.
As Maros Šefčovič announced the EU’s proposals to amend the NI Protocol, going further than many thought it might, the issues pertaining to the Irish Sea Border are now firmly up for discussion as the EU and UK, once again embark on intense negotiations.
For some Lord Forst had played a blinder, with his bullish approach to the potential triggering of Article 16 finally getting some movement from the EU. Others called out the willingness and flexibility of the EU to address what ‘Šefčovič’ said was a “direct and genuine response to concerns raised.”
And then, we have the latest bedfellows in Dominic Cummings and Ian Paisley Junior both calling out a cunning plan, or at least a bit of a punt, by the Prime Minister to agree to the Protocol with a view to changing it later – prompting a swift and terse response from the Tánaiste that the UK may have acted in bad faith. What cannot be denied, is that the UK exit was the only show in town and while it came with all sorts of runners and riders, the fallers were a price that simply had to be paid….at least in the short term.
And so, as Lord Frost and co. “seriously and constructively” consider the proposals, it is for many simply a catalyst for the commencement of that intense engagement with the EU, a period of negotiation and deliberation that the average punter thought had taken place nearly two years ago.
Many stumbling blocks to further compromise remain, not least the personalities, threats and mud–slinging but above all the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and its role in the Protocol arbitration.
Locally, the entrenched positions persist, with Jeffrey Donaldson stating that the EU’s proposals fall a long way short while Sinn Féin have welcomed ‘the progress’ by tabling a petition at Stormont to recall the Assembly to reiterate support for the protocol.
What is clear is that this process is not a scrapping, but a renegotiation of the Protocol. It will have wider implications for our local runners, riders and fallers, no matter how it plays out, as an election beckons and, potentially, the stability of the Assembly itself rests on its agreed outcome.
• An 80% reduction in checks of agri–food products, including certain goods, plants and items of animal origin, moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
o Maros Sefcovic stated, in practical terms, this would allow a lorry carrying dairy, fish and confectionary to present one certificate, rather than multiple certificates for each item.
o The requirement to submit documentary information online ahead of shipping will remain, however the EU envisages an 80% reduction in both identity checks on lorries arriving to NI and the more intensive inspections of their goods.
• A 50% reduction in paperwork required to ship products to Northern Ireland from GB was also included in the modifications proposed.
• Legislate supply line of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to ensure no disruption after the current grace period lapses in 2022.
• The establishment of structured groups to provide a forum for NI stakeholders, including politicians, business representatives and members of the society, to discuss key issues around the Protocol’s implementation.
• No concession on UK demand to remove European Court of Justice’s oversight role in the post–Brexit trade deal. Under the current arrangement, the ECJ acts as the final arbitrator in any trade dispute relating to the Protocol.
o Sefcovic insisted that NI would not retain access to the EU single market if the arrangement was not subject to oversight by European judges.
• Request of ‘safeguards’ to ensure products destined for Northern Ireland do not end up crossing the Irish border. These assurances would include ‘UK–only’ labelling on goods, and enhanced monitoring on “every link in the supply chain.”
The UK is preparing for “intensive talks” following the European Commission’s proposals to change the Northern Ireland Protocol. The government has insisted it will consider the bloc’s package “seriously and constructively” ahead of their initial meeting in London on Thursday.
• While the proposal has been welcomed, a government spokesperson said that “significant changes” must be made to the Protocol’s fundamental issues, including governance, if a durable settlement is to be agreed.
• Brexit Minister Lord Frost is expected to contend the European Court of Justice’s oversight role in implementation of the Protocol, which the EU insists is non–negotiable.
• The UK Government is advocating for a new governance arrangement in which disputes would be “managed collectively” and “ultimately through international arbitration.”
• Lord Frost this week warned the UK could still trigger Article 16 if this “significant change” is not made to the post–Brexit trade deal.
• He insists the reach of the ECJ remains a key issue, stating: “The problem with the protocol at the moment is that EU law, with the ECJ as the enforcer of it, is applied in Northern Ireland without any sort of democratic process.”
• Speaking in Lisbon earlier this week, Frost said that trust in the Protocol had been “shredded” and that it had to be replaced.
EU Government Reaction
• Paris and Belin are said to be spearheading a group to prepare counter–measures plans in the event that UK–EU talks fail and Britain triggers Article 16, leaving a potential opening in the EU internal market.
• European sources have told the Telegraph that member states overwhelmingly back the compromise put forth by Sefcovic, but attitudes may soon change if it doesn’t lead to an imminent deal.
• EU ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida states the latest proposals “go the extra mile” and that current issues were “caused by Brexit.”
• Joao Vale De Almeida added that the EU are “not renegotiating” the Protocol but rather “adapting” the trade deal to find solutions.
• The Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he “strongly” welcomes the package and believes the UK government will work with the EU on the proposals, adding that it is “not surprising” implementing the Protocol has thrown up practical challenges and concerns.
• Maros Sefcovic will also speak with NI’s political leaders later on Thursday following a mixed reaction from Stormont to EU’s proposal.
UK Government Reaction
• UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid insists the government is committed to “ending the role of the European Court of Justice anywhere in the UK.”
• Responding to the EU’s proposals, Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford said he’s “baffled” as to how the UK government can be critical of a deal that “they themselves signed up to.”
• DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that, while the EU’s proposals are a “starting point,” they fall “a long way short” of the fundamental change needed. Mr Donaldson says there “no escaping the reality that the Protocol has harmed Northern Ireland, both in economic and constitutional terms.”
• Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, echoed Mr Donaldson’s sentiment, stating that while the proposals are a “step forward” there remained a “long way to go” in negotiations, and that he was “disappointed” by what he heard from by Maros Sefcovic.
• Following the announcement, Sinn Féin have tabled a petition at Stormont to recall the Assembly and “reiterate support for the protocol.” Party leader Michelle O’Neill said the plans were a “good mark of progress” and recognise the “special status of Ireland to help protect the Good Friday agreement… and safeguard the all–island economy.”
• The SDLP also welcomed potential changes outlined by Maros Sefcovic, with party leader Colum Eastwood describing the bloc’s package as “significant,” and urged political leaders to embrace them.
• Alliance leader Naomi Long said there was “a bit of gameplay going on” in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, stating: “It worries me that the EU have dealt with all of those issues, the practical and pragmatic things, that businesses and politicians have raised and as soon as they get within touching distant of a really improved situation, suddenly it’s about the ECJ.”
NI Business Reaction
• Stephen Kelly, CEO of Manufacturing NI, called for pragmatism in the wake of Sefcovic’s proposals, and stated any lasting objections to the ECJ’s involvement is a “Brexit purity” issue on the part of the UK government. Kelly believes the latest package “removes a lot of the problems” with the current Protocol.