EU climbs down over Northern Ireland Brexit agreement, agreeing to axe most hated goods checks

The EU agreed to a major climbdown over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland tonight that while slash hated red tape in place since January.

The European Commission measures unveiled tonight would see an 80 per cent reduction in checks envisaged for retail agri-food products arriving in the region from Great Britain.

It would effectively end the so-called ‘sausage war’ that has seen goods crossing the Irish Sea subject to increased customs controls.

But Brussels tonight set itself on a new collision course with Westminster by refusing to UK demands to remove the European Court of Justice from its role in overseeing the agreement.

UK ministers including Lord Frost have made scrapping the EU court’s role key to their arguments in recent days, leading to the EU accusing Britain of moving the goalposts.

One EU official urged the UK to be ‘realistic and pragmatic’, warning if it sticks to its demand on the ECJ it would create a ‘very big gap’ between the two sides.  

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic told reporters tonight the EU proposals would make a ‘real, tangible difference on the ground’ in Northern Ireland.

But he hit out at the UK over its ECJ demands, saying that in many hours of meetings he was involved in, it had only been mentioned once. 

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic told reporters tonight the EU proposals would make a ‘real, tangible difference on the ground’ in Northern Ireland.

Lord Frost issued a last minute warning to the EU this afternoon that it must 'move significantly' in order to secure a Brexit breakthrough on Northern Ireland border rules

Lord Frost issued a last minute warning to the EU this afternoon that it must ‘move significantly’ in order to secure a Brexit breakthrough on Northern Ireland border rules

What is the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol about and what are the key issues?

The row between Britain and Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol has been rumbling on ever since it was implemented at the start of this year.  

The protocol governs trade between GB and Northern Ireland and was designed to prevent a land border with the Republic, with checks carried out at ports instead. 

However, the rules have caused disruption to trade and inflamed community tensions. 

The UK wants the protocol to be completely overhauled while the EU has favoured only making tweaks. 

These are the main sticking points: 

Customs checks

Businesses believe post-Brexit border red tape is too arduous and complicated and want it to be simplified. 

Products shipped from Northern Ireland to GB are largely unaffected by the protocol with the bureaucratic burden falling on goods heading in the other direction.    

Since December 31, a range of regulatory animal and plant safety checks have been in operation, including physical inspections for a proportion of freight arriving at Northern Ireland ports.

Customs declarations are also required for incoming commercial goods. 

While the rest of the UK has left, Northern Ireland has remained in the EU single market for goods. The region also applies EU customs rules at its ports.  

What does the UK want: Many checks are yet to be implemented so there are fears disruption could get even worse without a major rethink. Britain believes the red tape must be slashed to make things run more smoothly.

What has the EU proposed: Brussels argues the checks and paperwork are necessary because goods could end up in the Republic and therefore inside the EU. However, it now seems the bloc is willing to give ground. Reports suggest it is open to reducing checks by 50 per cent. A new system could see goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland going through a ‘green lane’ with only minimal checks carried out while items heading to the Republic would go through a ‘red lane’ of more stringent checks. 

Sausages and other chilled meats

The problems with the protocol have been best illustrated by a row over the movement of chilled meats.  

Under EU rules, the import of such products from third countries like the UK is banned. 

That means Northern Ireland faces the prospect of being unable to import GB sausages and other chilled meats on the prohibition list. 

What does the UK want: Ministers are adamant there must be no ban on sending chilled meat from GB to Northern Ireland. They argue European leaders would never accept such arrangements for goods travelling inside the internal market of their own countries. The UK has unilaterally extended a grace period which means the ban is yet to come into effect. But a long term solution is being sought. 

What has the EU proposed: It is thought Brussels will propose a new ‘national identity goods’ clause which will allow the continued sale of British sausages and other relevant items in Northern Ireland.      

The European Court of Justice

Under the terms of the protocol – agreed by the UK and EU in 2019 – the ECJ acts as the final arbiter on any disputes between the two sides on the operation of the protocol. 

What does the UK want: Britain has called for the ECJ to be stripped of this oversight role, arguing that there should be an international arbitration system put in place instead. The UK argues it is unacceptable to have EU judges ruling on potential disputes between the EU and the UK. The Government said it only agreed to an ECJ role in the protocol due to the ‘very specific circumstances of that negotiation’ as the UK pressed to get a Brexit deal done.

What has the EU proposed: So far Brussels has signalled it intends to dig in on the issue. Brussels views the ECJ’s role in the operation of the protocol as a ‘red line’. 

The plan also includes a 50 per cent reduction in customs paperwork required to move products into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

More products and companies would be exempt from customs tariffs as a result of expanding trusted trader arrangements and a concept that differentiates between goods destined for Northern Ireland and those ‘at risk’ of onward transportation into the Irish Republic.

The EU has also offered to legislate to ensure no disruption to the supply line of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

However, the proposals contained in four separate papers published by the bloc on Wednesday evening do not offer any concession on the ECJ. 

A UK Government spokesman said: ‘The EU have now published their proposals in response to those in our Command Paper. We are studying the detail and will of course look at them seriously and constructively.

‘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.

‘Significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree a durable settlement which commands support in Northern Ireland.

‘We need to find a solution which all sides can get behind for the future, which safeguards the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and which puts the UK-EU relationship on a stronger footing. We are ready to work hard with this in mind.’

And shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said: ‘These proposals look to be a serious step in the right direction in addressing the practical concerns of businesses and communities on the ground. 

‘It is clear that with political will there is a landing ground – now is the time for the EU, UK and representatives from Northern Ireland to get around the table and reach the agreement communities need.’

Lord Frost had earlier issued a last minute warning to the EU that it must ‘move significantly’ to secure a Brexit breakthrough on Northern Ireland border rules as the bloc prepares to unveil its compromise plan this evening. 

The Government’s Brexit chief said the UK will look at the European Commission’s proposals ‘positively’ when they are published and then ‘see what we can do’.   

He said the publication of the plan should be followed by a period of ‘intensive talks’ to find a solution to the rumbling row over the Northern Ireland Protocol ‘that everybody can get behind’.  

Meanwhile, the peer reiterated the EU will have to give in to a UK demand to end the European Court of Justice’s oversight of the border arrangements for progress to be made. 

His comments came after a fresh Brexit dispute erupted this morning as Leo Varadkar questioned if the UK can be trusted to stick to international treaties.  

The Irish deputy prime minister responded to comments made by Dominic Cummings who suggested the Government never intended to stick to every letter of the original Brexit deal. 

Mr Johnson’s former top aide said the plan was to ‘ditch bits we didn’t like’ in the deal after winning the 2019 general election as he argued ‘sometimes’ it is acceptable to break international commitments. 

Mr Varadkar said the remarks were ‘very alarming’ because they ‘indicate that this is a government, an administration, that acted in bad faith’. 

The Tanaiste said the message that the UK ‘doesn’t necessarily keep its word’ should be ‘heard around the world’ as he told other countries not to strike deals with Britain ‘until such a time as you are confident that they keep their promises’. 

The EU is expected to offer this evening to ‘massively’ reduce the number of post-Brexit border checks in Northern Ireland in an attempt to reduce trade friction.   

The plan would see up to 50 per cent of customs checks on goods lifted with an even higher proportion of checks ditched when it comes to checking meat and plants, according to The Telegraph.  

However, while the EU is due to give ground on the issue of checks it is expected to dig in over the ECJ. 

Lord Frost wants European judges to be stripped of their role policing the protocol and for a system of international arbitration to be put in place instead.  

But EU sources have insisted ECJ oversight is a ‘red line’ while The Guardian reported that Lord Frost’s counterpart in Brussels, Maros Sefcovic, has not included any proposal on the role of the court in his new offer to the UK.   

Mr Sefcovic is expected to say that the EU’s proposals are not ‘a take it or leave it’ offer, opening the door to more discussions. It is unclear if the movement on checks will be enough for the UK to move forward.

Mr Cummings said in a series of tweets last night that the UK had secured the ‘best option’ it could at the time and the intention was for Mr Johnson to ‘ditch bits we didn’t like after whacking Corbyn’ at the general election. 

He added: ‘Shd we generally stick to deals? Of course. Sometimes break them? Of course.’ 

Responding to the remarks, Mr Varadkar told RTE Morning Ireland: ‘I have seen those comments. I hope Dominic Cummings is speaking for himself and not for the British Government.

‘But those comments are very alarming because that would indicate that this is a government, an administration, that acted in bad faith and that message needs to be heard around the world because if the British Government doesn’t honour its agreements, doesn’t adhere to treaties it signs, that must apply to everyone else too.

‘So at the moment they are going around the world, they are trying to negotiate new trade agreements.

‘Surely the message must go out to all countries around the world that this is a British Government that doesn’t necessarily keep its word, doesn’t necessarily honour the agreements it makes and you shouldn’t make any agreement with them until such a time as you are confident that they keep their promises and honour things, for example, like the protocol.’

The UK has been pushing for a major overhaul of the protocol but the EU has been resisting, favouring tweaks over a significant shake-up. 

Dominic Cummings

Leo Varadkar

Dominic Cummings suggested the UK never intended to stick to every letter of the Brexit deal it agreed with the EU, prompting a furious response from Irish deputy PM Leo Varadkar 

Maros Sefcovic, the EU's Brexit chief, will this afternoon publish the bloc's proposals on how to resolve post-Brexit border problems in Northern Ireland

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit chief, will this afternoon publish the bloc’s proposals on how to resolve post-Brexit border problems in Northern Ireland 

The Government has repeatedly threatened to trigger Article 16 of the protocol if the EU does not budge which would allow Britain to unilaterally ditch some of the rules. 

Unilaterally tearing up the arrangements would almost certainly result in a legal challenge from the EU. 

The protocol, agreed as part of the original Brexit deal, requires checks on goods travelling from GB to Northern Ireland to be carried out at ports in order to avoid the return of a land border with the Republic. 

But it has caused disruption to trade and angered unionists who have demanded the rules be scrapped, arguing they create a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. 

It is thought the EU’s offer will include a new ‘red lane’ and ‘green lane’ system to smooth the passage of goods through Northern Ireland’s ports. 

Items travelling from Great Britain which are destined to stay in Northern Ireland would go through the ‘green lane’ of minimal checks. 

Items which are due to head to the Republic would go through the ‘red lane’ of more stringent checks.  

The offer to reduce checks is expected to come with a demand from the bloc for access to real-time UK trade data so it can keep track of any items which could enter the Republic. 

An EU diplomat told The Telegraph: ‘The number of checks will go down massively. This is the best way to cut checks, short of a Swiss-style alignment agreement.’ 

Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic are expected to meet for crunch talks in the coming weeks to try to thrash out a possible compromise. 

One senior EU source said last night that the proposals will move towards the ‘light touch regime Britain had been seeking’. 

They added: ‘There will always be a certain level of control and checks because that is demanded by the single market, but they will be reduced to a level, which is the absolute minimum, that the EU system can bear.

‘I think for any reasonable person. They should be able to see that the remaining level of restrictions are extremely low, and shouldn’t pose any difficulties for importers or consumers in Northern Ireland.’

However, the stand-off over the issue of ECJ oversight risks scuppering the talks. 

Lord Frost said in a speech in Lisbon, Portugal, yesterday that the European Commission has been ‘too quick to dismiss governance as a side issue’ when ‘the reality is the opposite’. 

EU figures have reportedly been surprised at the emergence of the issue as a major sticking point for the UK, with Brussels insistent that the ECJ must retain its oversight of the protocol.        

The Northern Ireland Protocol requires checks on goods travelling from GB to Northern Ireland to be carried out at ports in order to avoid the return of a land border with the Republic but it has caused trade disruption and inflamed community tensions

The Northern Ireland Protocol requires checks on goods travelling from GB to Northern Ireland to be carried out at ports in order to avoid the return of a land border with the Republic but it has caused trade disruption and inflamed community tensions

Lord Frost’s demand to replace the role of the court with a system of international arbitration was last night dismissed by a senior EU diplomat who said it would be ‘impossible’ for the bloc to agree to. 

Lord Frost said this afternoon that the reach of the ECJ is a key issue that must be resolved. 

He told broadcasters: ‘The problem with the protocol at the moment is that EU law, with the ECJ as the enforcer of it, is applied in Northern Ireland without any sort of democratic process.

‘So that, I think, has to change if we’re to find governance arrangements that people can live with.’

He said the UK will examine the EU’s proposals ‘very carefully and positively’, adding: ‘We now need an intensive talks process and to try and find an agreement that everybody can get behind. That’s what we want to happen.’ 

But he warned: ‘Obviously, we haven’t seen what the (European) Commission have put forward, I hope they have moved significantly, and obviously we will look at it positively if they have, but we’ll wait and see what they come forward with, and then we’ll see what we can do.’  

Lord Frost yesterday took aim at French President Emmanuel Macron and his EU allies, saying Britain has been ‘constantly faced with generalised accusations that [we] can’t be trusted and are not a reasonable international actor’.

He claimed that alienation between the two sides would be a ‘serious historical error’.

He said: ‘We just want friendly relations, free trade and the chance to do things our own way, all within the framework of a meaningful and robust Western alliance.

‘With this in mind, I do urge you to look at the image you are presenting to us. If there is a trust problem, as we are constantly told there is, it is not the responsibility of only one party.

‘At some point we must both try to raise our eyes to the horizon, look at the possibilities for better relations, and try to help each other solve problems, not create them.’

Any agreement between the two sides would need to be signed off by the governments of the EU’s 27 member states before becoming final.

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