Brexit’s last battle: Brussels warns it has ‘gone as far as we can’ to solve Northern Ireland protocol crisis despite signs power of EU judges could be watered down to get deal over the line
- EU has unveiled new proposals for overhauling the Northern Ireland protocol
- The bloc’s ambassador warned it has gone as far as it can to solve the issues
- But signs Brussels might water down judges’ powers to get package over the line
Brussels has warned it has ‘gone to the limits’ in making concessions over the Northern Ireland protocol as wrangling intensifies in what could be the last major battle over Brexit.
As talks take place on how to overhaul the divorce terms, the bloc’s ambassador to the UK laid down a marker that it is not prepared to give much more ground.
The combative stance came after the European Commission unveiled proposals to slash 80 per cent of regulatory checks and dramatically cut customs processes on the movement of goods between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
Although the government welcomed the shifts outlined by Maros Sefcovic – which should ease the flow of food, farming produce and medicines – there is still a major flashpoint over the role of the European Court of Justice in policing the arrangements.
Brexit minister Lord Frost has insisted the ECJ should be removed entirely from the process and and independent arbiter should resolve disputes.
But there are hints at a compromise on that issue as well, with reports that the EU is ready to water down the court’s role so it only gets involved as a final resort to settle spats over narrow legal interpretation.
EU officials are in London for talks today, while Lord Frost is expected in Brussels tomorrow to meet Mr Sefcovic.
Speaking on BBC2’s Newsnight, EU ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels has gone the ‘extra mile’ and cannot go any further following Wednesday’s proposals
The Northern Ireland protocol has sparked a rise in sectarian tensions in the province
EU officials are in London for talks today, while Lord Frost (right) is expected in Brussels tomorrow to meet Maros Sefcovic (left)
Speaking on BBC2’s Newsnight, EU ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels has gone the ‘extra mile’ and cannot go any further following Wednesday’s proposals.
‘We went to the limits of what we can do to address the problems of Northern Ireland because we care for Northern Ireland,’ he said. ‘These problems were caused by Brexit.’
He stressed that the EU cannot accede to a key British demand to remove the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in overseeing the protocol.
‘There is no single market without the European Court of Justice. It’s the referee of the single market,’ he said.
Lord Frost has previously said the role of European judges is something the UK cannot accept.
However, in another sign compromise is in the air he told peers 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 EU as part of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, the ECJ would be the final arbitrator in any future trade dispute between the two parties on the operation of the protocol.
The UK now wants to remove that provision and replace it with an independent arbitration process.
The Times reported that one option being mulled by Brussels is for disputes to go to an independent arbitration panel, with the ECJ asked to interpret narrow matters of EU law as a last resort after dispute resolution has failed.
Cabinet minister Sajid Javid highlighted the importance of removing the ECJ from the process in interviews this morning.
The Health Secretary told Sky: ‘Looking forward, there should not be a role for the European Court of Justice in any part of the UK and that includes Northern Ireland.
‘I think it is an over-legalistic approach that the court has. Lord Frost has been really clear about this with the speech that he made this week. One of the most important issues is to end the role of the ECJ in Northern Ireland.’
The package of proposals already set out by the EU would remove the prospect of certain produce, including sausages, being banned from being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The EU plan also includes a 50 per cent reduction in customs paperwork required to move products across the Irish Sea.
In return, the trading bloc has asked for safeguards to be implemented to provide extra assurances that products said to be destined for Northern Ireland do not end up crossing the Irish border.
Those include labelling certain products to make it clear they are for sale in the UK only, and enhanced monitoring of supply chain movements and access to real-time trade flow information.
Boris Johnson (pictured at Tory conference last week) has insisted he will suspend the protocol if it is the only way of easing the problems
The EU plan amounts to a set of counter-proposals in response to a wish list of protocol reforms outlined by the UK Government in July.
The proposals from both sides are now set to form the basis of a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London in the weeks ahead.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to sidestep the major obstacle in the Brexit divorce talks – the Irish land border.
It achieved that by shifting regulatory and customs checks and processes to the Irish Sea.
But the arrangements have created new economic barriers on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
This has caused disruption to many businesses in Northern Ireland and has also created a major political headache for the Government, as unionists and loyalists are furious at what they perceive as a weakening of the Union.
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