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20th Jan 2022

EU proposes softer Northern Ireland rules, amid post-Brexit tension

  • EU Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič (r) and João Vale de Almeida, head of the EU delegation to the United Kingdom, on a recent visit to Northern Ireland (Photo: European Commission)
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The EU Commission has unveiled a set of proposals aimed at easing bureaucracy and checks on post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.

The proposals, out on Wednesday (13 October), came in response to UK demands to rewrite the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which was agreed between the EU and the UK to avoid a return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

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The solution was to keep Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods, creating checks between the province and Great Britain, which London now says is not sustainable.

The EU has said the protocol, which is part of a divorce deal which came as a result of three and a half years of difficult negotiations, is not to be reopened.

The rules came into force this January but the UK has been reluctant to implement some of the measures laid down in the protocol and the trade arrangements have created extra burdens for businesses on both sides.

EU Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič told reporters on Wednesday that the proposals offered "creative and practical solutions" and could make "real, tangible difference" on the ground.

EU officials on Wednesday said the proposals "go far beyond tinkering around the edges" of the protocol and amounted to "a different method of implementation" of the deal.

"We can find solutions for real issues without renegotiating the protocol," one EU official said.

The proposed measures, which the EU suggests as a basis for talks with London, include easing customs controls, such as the clearance of meat, dairy, and other food products.

It could enable supermarkets to supply Northern Irish stores with sausages and other chilled-meat products from Britain that are banned from entry into the EU and, since January, into Northern Ireland.

The EU also proposed to remove 80 percent of official checks for a wide range of products. And it suggested making the flow of medicines to Northern Ireland from Great Britain easier.

For fewer checks to work, the EU asked the UK for more guarantees in terms of governance and market surveillance, as well as a reinforced monitoring of supply chains.

But earlier on Tuesday, the UK's Brexit minister, David Frost, said it would be a "historic misjudgement" if the EU did not consider scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol altogether.

Frost also threatened to trigger Article 16 of the deal, which would effectively suspend parts of the agreement if the EU failed to change its stance.

One of the key issues creating tension between the EU and the UK is the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Frost has demanded that the ECJ should not have an oversight role in Northern Ireland on how EU law was being applied.

London, which agreed to the role of the ECJ when it signed the protocol in January 2020, now says that the court is infringing on UK sovereignty.

The EU, on the other hand, argues that only the EU's top court can rule on issues affecting the bloc's single market.

EU officials said they hoped the UK would show "pragmatism" rather than focusing on "constitutional issues".

The UK government said in a statement that it will "study the details [of the EU proposal] and will, of course, look at them seriously and constructively".

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