Brussels on Wednesday vowed a major reduction in post-Brexit checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — but rejected U.K. demands to negotiate a “new” protocol.
One day after U.K. Brexit Minister David Frost ramped up the rhetoric in an EU-U.K. spat over trade frictions, warning that a failure to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol “would be a historic misjudgment,” the European Commission responded by releasing what it called a “robust package of creative, practical solutions” that it claims make a renegotiation unnecessary.
In a document covering four areas, the Commission floats reducing cumbersome custom checks on goods and easing safety checks on food products that enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
It also outlines moves to ease the export of medicines and increase the involvement of political, economic and civil society actors in Northern Ireland. The protocol has been deeply controversial with Northern Ireland’s unionists, who see it as driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
“Today’s package has the potential to make real, tangible difference on the ground,” Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s point person on Brexit, told reporters in Brussels. “We have put a lot of hard work into this package” and at times even “went beyond EU law” to find solutions to trade frictions, Šefčovič added.
The protocol was agreed by both EU and U.K. as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in 2019, but London has repeatedly argued that the negotiated solutions do not work and are causing political and economic disruption in Northern Ireland. Suggestions London might trigger Article 16 to suspend the protocol have triggered fears of a trade war, as EU officials warned that the bloc would react to such a move by launching legal action and the potential imposition of tariffs.
“The EU has an unwavering commitment to the people of Northern Ireland” and to safeguard the Good Friday peace agreement, Šefčovič said. He stressed that he sees the Commission’s proposal as a chance to set a positive agenda, and added: “I hope that Lord Frost will join me in that effort.”
The U.K. government said it was “studying the detail” of the proposals and insisted it “will of course look at them seriously and constructively.”
A spokesperson added: “The next step should be intensive talks on both our sets of proposals, rapidly conducted, to determine whether there is common ground to find a solution.”
But London warned it needs to see “significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the protocol, including governance.”
David McAllister, the chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said “the package of measures presented today addresses concerns on the island of Ireland” but stressed that the Northern Ireland protocol “cannot be renegotiated. It is part of the solution to the problem. The problem is and remains Brexit.”
EU negotiators left for London on Wednesday to present the proposals to their U.K. counterparts — and Šefčovič said he had invited Frost for lunch on Friday.
“It is my hope that in the coming weeks we will jointly arrive at an agreed solution,” Šefčovič said, adding that he hopes a solution can be in place by the beginning of next year.