Brussels is “preparing for the worst” while awaiting the UK’s response to a series of measures it has proposed to reduce trade bureaucracy across the Irish Sea.
The Commission of the European Union has defined measures to reduce regulatory controls by 80% and significantly reduce customs procedures on the movement of goods, especially food and agricultural products, between Great Britain and the island from Ireland.
The UK government welcomed the announcement on Wednesday evening, signaling that it wanted “intensive talks” to follow the EU’s proposals, designed to tackle the disruption caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But the EU is now bracing itself for the UK’s worst in response to its proposals and fears Boris Johnson will reject the plan, according to The Guardian and The Independent newspapers.
“The EU has now released its proposals in response to those in our command document,” a UK government spokesperson said.
“We are studying the details and will of course look at them seriously and constructively.
“The next step should be intensive discussions on our two sets of proposals, conducted quickly, to determine if there is common ground to find a solution.
“Significant changes that address the fundamental issues at the heart of the protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree to a lasting settlement that is supported by Northern Ireland.”
The reduced control regime proposed by the EU would also eliminate the possibility that certain British products, including Cumberland sausages, would be banned from exporting to the region.
The EU plan also includes a 50% reduction in customs formalities required to move products to Northern Ireland from Britain.
In return, the trade bloc demanded that safeguards be put in place to provide additional assurances that products supposedly destined for Northern Ireland do not end up crossing the Irish border.
These include labeling of certain products, making it clear that they are intended for sale only in the UK, and improved monitoring of supply chain movements and access to information on trade flows in real time.
European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said the bloc had worked hard to come up with an “alternative model” for the implementation of the protocol.
“We have explored all possible angles of the protocol and, at times, have gone beyond current European law,” he said at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday.
He added: “With this solid set of practical and imaginative solutions, we can continue to implement the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol for the benefit of all communities on the ground.
“This not only strengthens stability and predictability, an essential ingredient for the growth of the local economy, but also opens the door to better opportunities. “
While the range of measures would go some way to reducing the daily friction on trade caused by the protocol, they fall short of the UK’s demand for the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
UK Brexit Minister Lord Frost has made it clear that removing the court’s oversight function in protocol oversight is a red line for the government if a compromise deal is to be found.
Under the terms of the protocol, which was agreed by the UK and the EU as part of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, the ECJ would be the final arbiter of any future trade dispute between the two parties over the functioning of the protocol.
The UK now wants to remove this provision and replace it with an independent arbitration process.
The European Commission has insisted that it will not budge on the issue of the ECJ.
Lord Frost warned that the UK may decide to suspend parts of the protocol, triggering the Article 16 mechanism, if an acceptable compromise cannot be reached.
He insisted that the reach of the ECJ was a key issue, telling broadcasters: “The problem with the protocol at the moment is that EU law, with the ECJ as executor, is applied in Ireland from North without any kind of democratic process. “
“So I think that has to change if we are to find governance arrangements that people can live with. “
The EU’s plan boils down to a set of counter-proposals in response to a wishlist for protocol reforms presented by the UK government in July.
The two parties’ proposals should now form the basis for a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London in the coming weeks.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by the UK and the EU as a way to get around the major hurdle in the Brexit divorce talks, the Irish land border.
It achieved this by moving regulatory and customs controls and processes to the Irish Sea
The agreements created new economic barriers on goods transferred from Britain to Northern Ireland.
This has caused disruption in many businesses in Northern Ireland and has also created a major political headache for the government as trade unionists and loyalists are furious at what they perceive to be a weakening of the Union.
On Wednesday evening, the EU’s proposals were welcomed by Irish political leaders, with Taoiseach Micheal Martin describing them as “the obvious way forward and the obvious solution to the problems”.
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