The European Union has offered to reduce customs checks and paperwork on British products intended for its province of Northern Ireland in the hope of averting a new Brexit clash with the United Kingdom.
The offer was part of a set of wide-ranging proposals designed to solve problems in post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland that London says are reigniting inter-community tensions.
A team of EU negotiators on Wednesday delivered the plans to London, a day after the UK’s Brexit minister David Frost said the current policy on Northern Ireland – known as the protocol – should be ripped up.
The EU’s executive said the measures could halve customs paperwork and cut checks on meat, dairy and other food products coming to Northern Ireland from mainland Britain by 80 percent. New rules would ensure the flow of medicines, notably generics, was not disturbed.
“I have listened to and engaged with Northern Irish stakeholders. Today’s proposals are our genuine response to their concerns,” said European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.
“We are looking forward to engaging earnestly and intensively with the UK government, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Although the EU has said it refuses to renegotiate the protocol, a statement said the plans were “a different model” for its implementation and would facilitate trade problems “to a significant extent”.
Designing the protocol was the source of the most friction in the UK’s drawn-out divorce from the EU after it voted to leave the bloc in 2016.
At stake is preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland, which is split between the EU-member the Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland.
Since the Brexit trade arrangements kicked in in January, the UK has turned sour on the protocol terms it signed and accepted in its divorce that created a de facto internal trade border.
The agreement has required new checkpoints at ports to stop the risk of goods from England, Scotland and Wales getting into the EU by the back door.
But the British government points to pro-UK unionists in Northern Ireland who fear that the checkpoints strengthen pro-Irish republicans’ case for a united Ireland and create a schism within the UK.
London has asked for a complete rewrite of the protocol, including a banishment of the role of the EU court to resolve conflicts under its terms, which is a non-starter for Brussels.
To ease the frictions, the EU released four texts that zeroed in on a number of issues, including complaints of constrained medicine supplies, overzealous food safety checks and too much paperwork.
Taken together, the solutions would create an “express lane” for the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the EU said.
All the while, “robust monitoring and enforcement” would remain in order to protect the EU from health and security threats, it said.
The proposals would solve, for example, the so-called “sausage war” in which UK authorities accused the EU of purist food safety rules that would deny Northern Ireland chilled meats.
To keep British-made sausages on the shelves, the UK unilaterally extended post-Brexit grace periods that allowed for their import into Northern Ireland.
The EU has suspended its legal proceedings against the UK on the issue.
Sefcovic said the package should not be seen as a “take it or leave it” offer, but the foundation for a joint agreement with the UK. However, reiterated there would be no next package if this was rejected.
Looming over the talks is Article 16 of the protocol – which gives either side the right to say it wants to suspend parts of the trading arrangement if they believe they are flawed.
the UK has threatened to use that provision if the EU does not change its attitude on not renegotiating the protocol.
Triggering Article 16 would begin a long legal process in which the EU could hit back with trade measures against the UK.