Brussels has warned that it has “gone to extremes” in making concessions on the Northern Ireland protocol as bickering intensifies in what could be the last major battle over Brexit.
While talks are underway about how to review the divorce terms, the bloc’s ambassador to the UK has put a mark that it is not willing to give up much more ground.
The combative stance came after the European Commission unveiled proposals to cut 80 percent of statutory controls and drastically reduce customs procedures for goods traffic between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
While the government welcomed the shifts outlined by Maros Sefcovic – which should facilitate the flow of food, agricultural products and medicines – there is still a major focus on the role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the arrangements.
Brexit minister Lord Frost has insisted that the ECJ be removed from the process completely and that an independent arbitrator resolves disputes.
But there are also hints of compromise on that issue, with reports that the EU is poised to water down the court’s role so that it is only involved as a last resort to resolve disputes over narrow legal interpretation.
EU officials are in London today for talks, while Lord Frost is expected in Brussels tomorrow to meet Mr Sefcovic.
Speaking to BBC2’s Newsnight, EU Ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels has gone the ‘extra mile’ and cannot go further after Wednesday’s proposals
Northern Ireland protocol has fueled sectarian tensions in the province
EU officials are in London today for talks, while Lord Frost (right) is expected in Brussels tomorrow to meet Maros Sefcovic (left)
Speaking to BBC2’s Newsnight, EU Ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels has gone the ‘extra mile’ and cannot go further after Wednesday’s proposals.
“We went to the extreme of what we can do to tackle Northern Ireland’s problems because we care about Northern Ireland,” he said. ‘These problems are caused by Brexit.’
He stressed that the EU cannot respond to an important UK demand to remove the European Court of Justice (ECJ) role in overseeing the protocol.
‘There is no internal market without the European Court of Justice. It is the arbiter of the internal market,” he said.
Lord Frost has previously said that the role of European judges is something the UK cannot accept.
However, in another sign a compromise is in the air, he told colleagues yesterday that he never used the term ‘red lines’ in his negotiations.
Under the terms of the protocol, which was agreed by the UK and the EU as part of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, the ECJ would be the final arbitrator in any future trade dispute between the two sides over the functioning of the protocol.
The UK now wants to delete that provision and replace it with an independent arbitration process.
The Times reported that one option being considered by Brussels is for disputes to go to an independent arbitration panel, asking the ECJ to interpret limited EU law as a last resort after dispute settlement has failed.
Minister Sajid Javid emphasized the importance of removing the ECJ from the trial in interviews this morning.
The Health Minister told Sky: ‘Looking forward, there should be no role for the European Court of Justice in any part of the UK, including Northern Ireland.
‘I think it’s an overly legalistic approach to the court. Lord Frost has been very clear about this in his speech this week. One of the most important issues is ending the ECJ’s role in Northern Ireland.’
The package already drafted by the EU would remove the prospect of certain products, including sausage, not being allowed to be shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland.
The EU plan also includes a 50 percent reduction in customs paperwork needed to transport products across the Irish Sea.
In return, the trading bloc has asked for safeguards to be put in place to provide additional guarantees that products allegedly destined for Northern Ireland do not cross the Irish border.
These include labeling certain products to make it clear that they are only for sale in the UK, and improved monitoring of supply chain movements and access to real-time trade flow information.
Boris Johnson (pictured at the Tory conference last week) has urged to suspend protocol if it is the only way to alleviate the problems
The EU plan amounts to a series of counter-proposals in response to a wish list of protocol reforms drawn up by the British government in July.
The proposals from both sides will now form the basis for a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London in the coming weeks.
The Northern Ireland Protocol has been agreed by the UK and the EU as a way to get around the main obstacle in the Brexit divorce talks – the Irish land border.
It achieved that by moving regulatory and customs controls and processes to the Irish Sea.
But the arrangements have created new economic barriers to goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
This has disrupted many businesses in Northern Ireland and has also caused major political headaches for the government as union members and loyalists are outraged at what they see as a weakening of the Union.