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2nd Dec 2023

UK presses EU to rewrite Northern Ireland customs rules

  • Northern Ireland: EU staff at some ports told to stay home after paramilitary threats (Photo: William Murphy)

Britain has demanded the EU relaxed customs rules on Northern Ireland, amid threats to suspend part of the Brexit deal.

The UK's demands came in a letter from British minister Michael Gove to European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Wednesday (3 February).

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The EU should extend a grace period on new checks for a list of food and other products from a few months until 2023, Gove said.

It should also extend a deal on free movement of medical supplies until 2023, he said.

And it should scrap restrictions on pet travel and steel exports, amid other measures, he added.

Gove and Šefčovič also spoke by videoconference the same day.

They issued a joint statement saying they had had a "constructive discussion" and would "work intensively to find solutions", including through a Gove-Šefčovič meeting in London next week.

But their talks appeared less cordial than the statement suggested.

The British demands come in the context of a bitter dispute, which erupted last weekend, when Šefčovič's commission briefly tried to stop exports of coronavirus vaccines from Ireland to Northern Ireland.

It did so by threatening to impose physical checks on Irish borders, hitting raw nerves on the Good Friday agreement - a 1998 peace deal which ended decades of sectarian violence by guaranteeing free movement.

Gove's letter, which was leaked to media, accused the EU of causing "shock and anger" and said its actions had "changed the realities" of post-Brexit politics.

But Šefčovič told Irish broadcaster RTE after their videoconference that it was up to the UK to use "flexibilities" in the existing Brexit deal instead of inventing new ones.

"I really think that if all the flexibilities we put on the table and into the [Northern Ireland] protocol would be used to the maximum, that all of the issues which we are discussing today would be really resolved," Šefčovič said.

The EU "expects rigorous implementation of the protocol," Šefčovič told Gove, according to Northern Ireland deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill, who had joined the videoconference and who also spoke to RTE afterwards.

The vaccine-border dispute had prompted threats to EU officials working at Northern Irish ports by local paramilitary groups.

And Gove and Šefčovič's statement "condemned unreservedly any threats or intimidation" to civil servants.

Johnson adds heat

But some Northern Irish nationalists, such as Ian Paisley, an MP from the Democratic Unionist Party, have continued to use heated rhetoric.

Paisley, speaking in the British parliament to UK prime minister Boris Johnson earlier on Wednesday, had urged him to "be the unionist we need you to be".

"The [Northern Ireland] protocol has betrayed us and has made us feel like foreigners in our country," Paisley said.

The Northern Ireland customs 'protocol' was among the toughest problems when the EU and UK negotiated the Brexit agreement.

And for his part, Johnson also goaded the EU over last weekend's vaccine-border fiasco, instead of trying to bury the hatchet.

He threatened to suspend part of the Brexit treaty if the EU refused the British demands to rewrite the Northern Ireland rules.

"We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by triggering Article 16 [on suspension] of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea," Johnson told MPs.

And he claimed the moral high ground by saying Europe had endangered peace, echoing Gove.

"It was most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday agreement, the principles of the peace process, by seeming to call for a border across the island of Ireland," Johnson said.

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