Brussels to offer new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland
Brussels will offer Britain a new Brexit deal on Northern Ireland on Wednesday, but is set to reject demands to strip European judges of their role in the province. The European Commission will hold a press conference on Wednesday afternoon to launch proposals to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol once the plans are approved at a meeting of the College of Commissioners. EU officials are expected to say they can significantly cut the number of checks on British goods exported to Northern Ireland if they are given real-time access to UK trade databases in order to police which products cross into the Republic of Ireland.
“Brussels is going to allow more goods to pass into Northern Ireland without checks in return for having more data to do proper market surveillance,” an EU diplomat said. An EU official said: “The number of checks will go down massively. This is the best way to cut checks, short of a Swiss-style alignment agreement.”
Under the proposals, up to 50 per cent of customs checks on goods would be lifted. The figure was said to be “even higher” for controls on meat and plants entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, a senior EU diplomat told The Telegraph.
The offer has been likened to the “max fac” plan proposed by Brexiteers but rejected by Brussels. It comes after Lord Frost, in a speech in Lisbon on Tuesday, said: “We will obviously consider [the EU proposals] seriously, fully, and positively.
But – I repeat – if we are going to get to a solution we must, collectively, deliver significant change.” The Brexit minister repeated his call for the oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) of the implementation of EU law in Northern Ireland to be replaced with international arbitration modelled on the Brexit trade deal. He suggested an “entirely new” protocol was needed and that failure to overhaul the treaty would be a “historic misjudgment”.
But EU sources warned that the British demand to remove the role of European judges was a red line and could cost Northern Ireland its access to the Single Market. On Tuesday night, Leo Varadkar, the Irish deputy prime minister, said the British Government demand was “very hard to accept” and insisted the ECJ had to be the body that interpreted European law. The deal on offer from Brussels could see the creation of a “green lane” for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain and a separate “red lane”, with more customs controls, for products intended to travel beyond the province.
The official said: “Instead of doing a form for every item in the truck, you will be able to do a form for the whole truck. One for the entire load. It is a very pragmatic solution.”
One diplomat likened the plan to the “maximum facilitation” strategy previously called for by Brexiteers, which employed technological solutions to minimise the need for physical checks. The diplomat stressed that the difference in the new deal was that it would use technology that exists now, whereas “max fac” was criticised in the EU for “magical thinking” because of its reliance on technology that had yet to be developed. Lord Frost had reservations about granting Brussels access to the data on trade crossing the Irish Sea, but his commission counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, has agreed to limit the scope of accessible information.
Maros Sefcovic has agreed to limit the scope of accessible information on trade crossing the Irish SeaCredit: Brian Lawless/PA
Britain is working on a bespoke system for a database for real-time information on safety and security declarations on shipments into Northern Ireland, and a second system that details the movement of goods into Ireland from ports in the province.
An EU diplomat said: “We always needed access to these databases, but now with these new flexibilities that are being offered it is a must-have.” The EU proposals also include a “national identity goods” clause allowing the continued sale of British sausages in Northern Ireland, despite EU rules restricting the sale of chilled meats from non-EU countries. The bloc will change EU Single Market rules on medicines to protect the NHS’s ability to maintain supplies of cheap generic medicines.
The Northern Ireland Protocol put a customs border between Britain and the province to prevent there being border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which could jeopardise the peace process. Lord Frost has said the checks to ensure goods meet EU standards are having a chilling effect on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland and called for the protocol to be overhauled in what has been a bone of contention for months. The commission insists checks are needed to preserve the “integrity of the Single Market”, but British officials have argued for a risk-based approach instead.
However, the potential breakthrough came as EU sources said that the closer next year’s French presidential elections came, the harder it would be to offer such compromises – which were a risk for the commission – because of Emmanuel Macron’s hard line on Northern Ireland. “We have a lot of other things on our plate. We want this dealt with,” a diplomat said. “The Brits have actually succeeded in being more boring on Brexit than Brussels.”
Fears that Poland could leave the bloc after its constitutional court challenged the primacy of EU law and its court have complicated matters.
Any concession offered to Britain on the issue of the ECJ would also be likely to be demanded by Warsaw.
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