The Guardian

EU braces for PM’s response after offering deal on Northern Ireland

Fears Johnson will reject Brussels compromise over customs checks

- Daniel Boffey Jennifer Rankin

The EU will scrap 80% of checks on foods entering Northern Ireland from Britain but Brussels was last night “preparing for the worst” amid signs Boris Johnson is set to reject the offer.

Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s Brexit commission­er, also announced that customs checks on manufactur­ed goods would be halved as part of a significan­t concession to ease postBrexit border problems.

He said he would meet David Frost, his UK counterpar­t who has demanded a scrapping of the entire Northern Ireland protocol, tomorrow as he sought to bring an end to a months-long tussle.

“I hope with a constructi­ve spirit we indeed could be in the home stretch, and I would be very happy if we can start the new year with new agreements,” Šefčovič told a press conference in Brussels as he presented four papers on his “new model” for the protocol.

An appeal was made for pragmatism from Johnson, with Šefčovič insistent that he remained positive. But the chances of a compromise appeared low.

Frost told the House of Lords he did not have any “red lines” going into the new negotiatio­n with the European commission but repeated his belief that a new protocol should be agreed without a role for the European court of justice (ECJ) as an arbiter of EU law in Northern Ireland. He told peers that the question of the UK’s sovereignt­y over Northern Ireland was “fundamenta­l”. A threeweek deadline for talks on the EU’s new proposals has been set. But Šefčovič was adamant the EU would not renegotiat­e the fundamenta­ls of the protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland within the single market, policed by the ECJ, and draws a customs border down the Irish Sea.

Šefčovič said: “It’s very clear that we cannot have access to the single market without the supervisio­n of the ECJ. But I think that we should really put aside this business of the red lines, the business

‘I think we should really put aside this business of red lines’

Maroš Šefčovič European Commission

of deadlines, real or artificial, and we should really focus on what we hear from the stakeholde­rs and the people in Northern Ireland, they want us to solve the practical issues.”

An EU official conceded there was a “very big gap” between Frost’s demands and the proposals on the table. “Primarily, it’s a call for the UK to be realistic,” the official said. “Focus on providing certainty, stability and predictabi­lity rather than focus on these high-level constituti­onal issues.

“We think that renegotiat­ing the protocol would create uncertaint­y. And that’s the opposite of what we need … There’s a reason negotiatio­ns on the protocol lasted for three and a half years. And we think we’ve reached the only workable solution.”

A UK government spokesman said: “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.”

The EU proposals on goods and medicines represents a significan­t concession for Brussels, which had previously called for the UK to align with the bloc’s food and plant health rules to avoid checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

While the EU continues to say checks and controls in the Irish Sea border are necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and represent the Brexit choices made by the British government, officials admitted more clearly than ever before that its implementa­tion had created “unintended consequenc­es” for businesses and consumers. “It goes far beyond tinkering around the edges,” said one official.

The EU is now proposing a “bespoke Northern Ireland specific solution”. This means checks would be removed on 80% of lines on supermarke­t shelves, with carefully labelled and sourced British sausages, the product that became emblematic of the row between the two sides, no longer at risk of being prohibited.

In a further concession, trucks carrying mixed loads – for example a lorry bound for a Northern Irish supermarke­t laden with meat, dairy and confection­ery – would only have to provide one health certificat­e for each journey rather than one for each product line. Customs paperwork will be hugely reduced through a more generous definition of goods deemed “not at risk” of entering the EU single market via the Irish border.

In exchange for looser controls, the UK will have to ensure border inspection posts are up and running and that EU officials have access to real-time data on checks.

These are existing requiremen­ts of the protocol and EU officials say they have seen progress on access to databases, having previously accused the UK of foot-dragging.

Some market checks will also be intensifie­d to prevent British goods being smuggled into the EU single market through Northern Ireland. Products for the Northern Irish market would have to carry individual labels, rather than labels on pallets.

“We are proposing a different model,” said an EU official. “Fewer checks on the one hand, but more guarantees in terms of governance, more market surveillan­ce and for this reason reinforced monitoring of supply chains will also be essential.”

However, in Westminste­r there is a concern that the market surveillan­ce and checks on sources of products will be as much of a problem for traders as the status quo.

There was no solution contained within Šefčovič’s proposals to the issue of pets travelling from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK and back.

In response to threats to affordabil­ity and availabili­ty of generic medicines in Northern Ireland, the EU will waive a requiremen­t that medical manufactur­ers move out of Great Britain into Northern Ireland. Companies supplying the Northern Irish market can continue to have their supply “hub” in Britain, a privilege not usually afforded to countries outside the EU single market.

Following criticism that the protocol is “undemocrat­ic”, the Northern Ireland assembly, civil society groups and businesses will be invited to take part in “structured dialogues” with the European Commission on implementi­ng the hundreds of EU laws that apply in the region, although they will not have any decision-making power.

‘We are studying the detail and will look at them seriously and constructi­vely’

UK government spokesman

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