The Daily Telegraph

EU offers Irish Sea trade checks deal

Minimum examinatio­ns would be made under Sefcovic’s sweetener to break Protocol deadlock

- By Joe Barnes

BRUSSELS has offered to slash physical trade checks in the Irish Sea to a “couple of lorries a day” in an olive branch to the new Prime Minister.

In the hope of breaking the deadlock over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Maros Sefcovic, the EU’S Brexit negotiator, said his plan would create an “invisible” trade border.

But he warned the proposal hinged on the European Commission being granted real-time access to UK trade databases in order to police which products cross into the Republic of Ireland.

“If the data are downloaded into the system, when the goods are put on the ferry from Britain... I believe that we can remotely process them while sailing to Northern Ireland,” Mr Sefcovic said.

He added physical checks would only be made when “there is reasonable suspicion of illegal trade smuggling, illegal drugs, dangerous toys or poisoned food”. The Slovak diplomat told the FT only a “couple of lorries a day” would be examined, with no difference between the UK’S demand for “no checks” and the EU’S offer of “minimum checks, done in an invisible manner”.

Britain has granted EU officials access to its trade databases, but Brussels claims they will not receive enough informatio­n to suspend most checks in the Irish Sea. The Protocol prevents a hard Irish border by introducin­g checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland and means the province continues to follow some EU rules.

A European source close to the talks, however, stressed that the apparent offer remained the same as proposals to ease the burden of the Protocol floated by Brussels last October.

Under the proposals, up to 50 per cent of customs checks on goods being shipped between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be lifted, which UK officials say does not go far enough to address the issues caused by the Protocol.

Talks over a revised Protocol, which the Government argues has had a chilling effect on trade, have been deadlocked since February.

So far the Commission has refused to a wholesale renegotiat­ion of the border arrangemen­ts, instead insisting talks must focus on its package from last October. Mr Sefcovic was said to be keen to restart negotiatio­ns ahead of next month’s deadline to avoid new Stormont elections.

With the DUP refusing to form a new devolved administra­tion in Northern Ireland, a caretaker government is in place but must be dissolved by Oct 28 unless a new executive is formed.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is then obliged to call new elections within three months or by Jan 19 at the latest.

“I also would prefer to work around the tight deadlines because I am fully aware of the dates which will be coming by the end of October,” he told the FT.

But the EC was yet to receive news on Britain’s next Brexit negotiator, after Liz Truss, who held the role while foreign secretary, became prime minister, according to a source. Mr Sefcovic said he was “encouraged” by Ms Truss’s recent remarks about her desire for a negotiated solution.

Progress, however, is unlikely while the Government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which will give ministers powers to unilateral­ly override the border agreement, is still on the table.

Brussels has branded the legislatio­n a breach of internatio­nal law and urged the Government to scrap the move.

The Commission responded by blocking Britain’s accession to the bloc’s Horizon research programme, agreed as part of the post-brexit Trade and Cooperatio­n Agreement.

“We need to see that the most important agreements are now respected before we start to negotiate another one,” Mr Sefcovic said.

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