Sunday, October 17, 2021

A breakthrough? EU presents package of solutions in the Brexit dispute over Northern Ireland

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The EU Brexit commissioner is not deterred by aggressive tones from London. He puts forward concrete proposals for dismantling to Northern Ireland. He ignores the most controversial British demand. Can that go well?

In the struggle for the special status of the British province of Northern Ireland after Brexit, the EU Commission has presented a detailed package of proposed solutions.

Around 80 percent of the previously necessary goods controls could be eliminated in certain areas, said EU Vice-Commission President Maros Sefcovic when presenting the plans in Brussels.

The Brexit commissioner of the EU Commission emphasized that they have listened carefully and that possible solutions have now been worked out in order to “achieve noticeable changes on the ground”. Sefcovic hardly responded to the open threats from London to suspend the Brexit agreement, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, or to the British’s delicate demand to remove the role of the European Court of Justice from the agreement.

Among other things, the relief is intended to considerably simplify the supply of medicines in Northern Ireland as well as the trade in food and many other goods. Exceptions are to be made in the case of Northern Ireland for specialties typical of the country, such as sausages, whose importation into the European internal market has so far been banned.

The British government announced that evening that it would examine the proposals “seriously and constructively”. London also warned, however, that there must be “significant changes” in the question of how compliance with the protocol is monitored – meaning the role of the European Court of Justice criticized by London.

The previous evening, the British Brexit Minister David Frost had declared the protocol to have failed and called for negotiations on a new agreement. But that is not an option for Brussels: “If you ignore the Court of Justice, you are depriving Northern Ireland of access to the internal market,” said a senior EU official.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was the breakthrough in the tough talks over the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. It stipulates that Northern Ireland – unlike England, Scotland and Wales – continues to follow the rules of the EU internal market and the customs union, thus preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the EU member Republic of Ireland.

Until the late 1990s, supporters of a united Ireland and supporters of the Union with Great Britain were fighting each other at gunpoint. The open border is intended to prevent the conflict from flaring up again.

In order to prevent uncontrolled goods from entering the EU across the open border, controls have been agreed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This has in part led to trade problems for which London and Brussels blamed each other. Northern Irish supporters of the union with Great Britain are a thorn in the side of the special status because it removes the province from the rest of the UK.

When presenting the EU proposals, Sefcovic emphasized the importance of peace and stability in Northern Ireland. He was deeply impressed by discussions with stakeholders in the region. Addressing the UK Government, he said: “I really hope that we share the same goals of peace, stability and prosperity in the island of Ireland, and I hope we can agree that Northern Ireland businesses and people benefit enormously from access to both markets would.”

The fact that the EU Commission is now courting people and companies in Northern Ireland so directly could have to do with falling confidence in the government in London. The former chief advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, sowed doubts about their sincerity on Tuesday evening. He never intended to implement the protocol, Cummings admitted. The plan was to reach an agreement with Brussels in the exit talks to win the 2019 parliamentary election and then “get rid of the parts that we don’t like,” he wrote on Twitter.

Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned the British government against forfeiting trust around the world if this turned out to be true.

The EU Commission’s proposals also provide for groups, authorities, organizations and other stakeholders from Northern Ireland to be more closely involved in the implementation of the protocol. Another offer is to reduce the amount of paper required for customs formalities by half, subject to conditions. Sefcovic and his British colleague David Frost are expected to meet in the coming days. However, concrete results could be a long time coming by the end of the year.

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