EU prepares for worst as Brexit divide remains

Brussels was today “preparing for the worst” over Brexit after the UK signalled the EU’s offer to scrap up to 80 per cent of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland was not enough to resolve the bitter dispute over the Irish border.

EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic called on London to engage “earnestly and intensively” with the proposals, inviting Brexit minister David Frost for renewed talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol from Friday.

But the UK said that, while Lord Frost would look “seriously and constructively” at the EU package, talks over the coming weeks must also take in his demand for the removal of European Court of Justice jurisdiction over the deal.  

A British source told The Independent: “Without new arrangements on governance the protocol will never have the support it needs to survive. It is a fundamental issue which needs to be addressed if the protocol is to be put onto a sustainable footing.”

The scene was set for a Christmas showdown, with observers unsure whether Mr Sefcovic’s initiative had provided enough “wriggle room” for Frost and Johnson to back down from their hardline stance.

Meanwhile UK businesses urged Boris Johnson to pull back from the brink, warning that his threat to tear up the protocol could trigger punitive tariffs on British products, including 10 per cent on car exports to the EU.

Brussels has made clear that it is ready to respond with tariffs if the UK takes the nuclear option of invoking Article 16 of the protocol to suspend implementation of the deal negotiated and agreed by the PM and his chief Brexit adviser in 2019.

But the EU appeared ready to move further to avoid the collapse of the agreement, with sources describing the vice-president’s proposals as an opening offer which “lays the ground” for talks.

In an eagerly-anticipated press conference at the European Commission HQ, Mr Sefcovic set out what he described as “a robust package of creative and practical solutions” to the bureaucracy and shortages which have bedevilled Northern Ireland since the full implementation of Brexit at the start of 2021.

As well as slashing overall red tape, he said the EU was ready to ditch new regulations on medicines being moved from the mainland as well as a ban on chilled meat products like sausages destined for the Northern Irish market. Containers of food products will require only require one vet’s certificate, rather than 100 or more to cover every different product in the consignment.

In return, the UK must build new border control posts and provide the EU with access to real-time trade data to help prevent smuggling. Items intended for Northern Ireland will have to be clearly labelled as not for sale in the EU, he said.

Dismissing Lord Frost’s concerns over the ECJ, Mr Sefcovic said the issue had been raised only once with him in comprehensive talks with businesses and political parties in Northern Ireland. He said that with a positive response from Britain, the row could be resolved by the New Year.

But raising the prospect that UK intransigence could lead to a hard border with the Republic, he said it was “very clear” that the province cannot continue to enjoy access to the single market without the supervision of the ECJ.

In a speech in Lisbon on Tuesday, Lord Frost called for the wholesale replacement of the protocol, warning that enforcement powers for the Luxembourg judges meant EU law being imposed on Northern Irish citizens without  democratic consent.

“That, I think, has to change if we’re to find governance arrangements that people can live with,” he said.

EU sources stressed that Mr Sefcovic’s “package of enhanced opportunities” came not in response to the Lisbon speech, but was aimed at “solving practical problems” affecting people and businesses on both sides of the Irish border, while preserving the peace and stability provided by the Good Friday Agreement and maintaining the integrity of the single market.

Asked if he expected a positive response from London, the Commission vice-president said: “I really hope that we share the same goal of peace, stability and prosperity on the island of Ireland and I hope that we also share the same goal to make sure that the businesses and people of Northern Ireland will benefit.”

But he took a swipe at the UK’s failure so far to deliver on data-sharing and checks on imports promised in the 2019 agreement, saying: “We are showing flexibility, but the remaining controls must be done properly.”

A UK government spokesperson said London would look at the package “seriously and constructively” and was ready to “work hard” on talks.

But the 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.

“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.”

The CBI urged both sides to “grasp this opportunity to get back round the table and agree sustainable long-term solutions”.

And the British Chambers of Commerce warned the government not to allow its concerns over the ECJ to get in the way of a deal.

“With firms focused on getting the economy back on track from the pandemic, the last thing UK businesses need is the risk of 10% tariffs on UK car exports to the EU, or the entire agreement being suspended or even terminated.

“Both sides need to reach a balanced agreement soon, focusing on cutting checks for businesses under the protocol and not disputes about different legal systems which have not been raised by the business community,” said BCC trade policy chief William Bain.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the EU’s proposals amounted to a “welcome acknowledgement that the NI Protocol has not worked and does not have the consent of the unionist community in Northern Ireland”.

But he warned that the Sefcovic package falls “a long way short of being the basis of a sustainable solution”, as it envisaged the survival of “a protocol that has failed”.

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney welcomed Lord Frost’s promise to “engage fully” with the proposals, saying they offered a “pathway” out of the crisis.

And Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said: “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.

“The last thing the UK needs with a cost-of-living crisis and rising tension in Northern Ireland is another poisonous stand-off and the prospect of a damaging trade war.”

But the former top civil servant at the Department for Exiting the EU, Philip Rycroft, said he was “puzzled” by London’s fixation on the ECJ issue, which the UK had known was an EU red line from the start.

“Seeking to overturn that does beg a question about what the UK thought it was signing up to?” he told Times Radio. “And indeed its resolve to stick with with the protocol for the long term.”

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