Northern Ireland and Brexit: How far Brussels will meet London

WHow far can Brussels go towards London when it comes to the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Agreement? For weeks, the commission brooded over the proposals that the Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, who is responsible for all Brexit issues, presented on Wednesday evening. One official spoke in advance of “very substantial, significant and momentous” ideas. It proposes a “whole new model for the application” of the protocol which defines Northern Ireland’s special status. Mind you: no new protocol, as the British negotiator David Frost had once again requested the previous evening.

Thomas Gutschker

Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.

Nonetheless, the Commission is pushing the limits of what is possible within its legal framework and politically. So far, concerns have been expressed by the services that the rules are being overstretched. And on the part of the Member States, France was particularly reluctant. For this reason, too, Šefčovič preferred to put the EU ambassador in the picture on Wednesday before informing the public. The matter concerns four “non-papers” on individual aspects of the protocol. That alone is an important pointer to London: the Commission is presenting proposals, not finalized legal texts, as some had feared there. It is not a “take it or leave it” package, said the official. They want to discuss this with the British government “in the next few weeks” and hope to find a solution “by the end of the year”.

The Commission wants to be more flexible

The situation is complicated because Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom on the one hand, but also part of the EU internal market for goods on the other. That is why what is imported from the British Isles must in principle comply with EU standards for safety and consumer protection and be controlled upon import. After all, the goods can easily cross the inner-Irish border, where there are no controls, and thus into the entire EU. However, this risk does not exist in the same way for all goods and the Commission now wants to be more flexible.

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The first suggestion, for example, is that the mandatory hygiene checks for plants and fresh meat that are exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland should generally be dropped. According to the EU official, this corresponds to eighty percent fewer controls. If a truck has loaded a hundred different fresh products, it previously required a hundred health certificates – in future a single collective certificate should be sufficient. This applies to most “identity goods”, i.e. products that Northern Irish Unionists do not want to miss, for example sausages from Cumberland. In return, however, they must finally be provided with stickers stating that they are “only allowed in the UK”. Brussels had already agreed this with London long ago, but it has not yet been implemented.

The second proposal concerns customs declarations, which are also necessary for industrial goods. Some of these goods are also subject to customs duties if they were mainly manufactured in third countries and are not subject to a free trade agreement with the EU. Brussels and London have basically agreed on an approach that makes the formalities dependent on the risk that goods could cross the inner-Irish border. The Commission now wants to significantly expand this list and thus reduce the bureaucratic burden by half. In addition, not only Northern Irish companies, but also British manufacturers and suppliers should benefit from this in the future.

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“That would create a kind of express lane that greatly facilitates the transport of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland,” said the EU official. The third paper is intended to facilitate the import of medicines. Northern Ireland should continue to be supplied by British pharmaceutical companies, even if they only approve and monitor drugs in their own premises. Actually, according to the protocol, this should take place again from next year – according to EU standards – in Northern Ireland. However, this would lead to such high additional costs that most suppliers would be able to say goodbye to this market.

The fourth proposal is to involve the Northern Irish more closely in the negotiations. So far, they have often only been a spectator or marginally involved because the exit agreement between Brussels and London was concluded. Of course, they can vote for the first time in four years on whether the protocol will remain effective. The EU therefore wants to involve the interest representatives in a “structured dialogue”, especially since it has made the experience that their concerns are not congruent with the positions of the British government. This applies in particular to Frost’s demand that the European Court of Justice should not rule on disputes that affect the EU internal market, but a new arbitration tribunal. When Šefčovič was in Northern Ireland for two days in September, no one made this request, while Frost built it up into a red line.

The EU official left no doubt on Wednesday that Brussels does not intend to negotiate: “If you take out the ECJ, Northern Ireland cannot remain in the internal market for goods.” After three and a half years of negotiations, it was agreed that it was ” the only viable solution ”. To back it up, he used an English proverb: hope for the best, an agreement, but prepare for the worst – a trade war.

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