Brussels was “preparing for the worst” for Brexit today after the UK signaled that the EU’s offer to abolish up to 80 percent of controls on entry into Northern Ireland was not enough to resolve the bitter dispute over the Irish border .
EU Vice President Maros Sefcovic called on London to deal “seriously and intensively” with the proposals and invited Brexit Minister David Frost to renewed talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol from Friday.
The UK said, however, that while Lord Frost will examine the EU package “seriously and constructively”, talks in the coming weeks must also take into account his call for the European Court of Justice to be removed from the deal.
A British source said The independent one: “Without new governance rules, the protocol will never get the support it needs to survive. It is a fundamental issue that must be addressed if the protocol is to be put on a sustainable footing. “
The venue was set for a Christmas showdown, during which observers were unsure whether Mr Sefcovic’s initiative had given Frost and Johnson enough “leeway” to step back from their tough stance.
Meanwhile, British companies called on Boris Johnson to pull back from the abyss, warning that his threat to tear the protocol apart could result in punitive tariffs on British products, including 10 percent on car exports to the EU.
Brussels has made it clear that it is ready to respond with tariffs if the UK uses the nuclear option to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol to suspend the implementation of the deal negotiated and agreed by the Prime Minister and his chief Brexit advisor in 2019.
But the EU appeared ready to go further to prevent the collapse of the deal, with sources citing the Vice-President’s proposals as an opening offer that “lays the groundwork for talks”.
At a much-anticipated press conference at European Commission headquarters, Mr Sefcovic introduced what he called “a robust package of creative and practical solutions” to the bureaucracy and shortage that have plagued Northern Ireland since Brexit was fully implemented from 2021.
He said the EU is ready to ditch new rules on shipments of pharmaceuticals from the mainland, as well as a ban on chilled meat products such as sausages for the Northern Irish market. Containers of food only require veterinary certification, rather than 100 or more, to cover every single product in the shipment.
In return, the UK needs to build new border inspection posts and give the EU access to real-time trade data to prevent smuggling. Items destined for Northern Ireland must be clearly labeled as not for sale in the EU, he said.
Mr Sefcovic denied Lord Frost’s concerns to the ECJ, saying the issue had only been raised with him once in extensive discussions with businesses and political parties in Northern Ireland. He said the dispute could be resolved by the New Year with a positive response from the UK.
However, he raised the prospect that the UK’s intransigence could lead to a hard border with the republic and said it was “very clear” that the province cannot have access to the internal market without the oversight of the ECJ.
In a speech in Lisbon on Tuesday, Lord Frost called for the protocol to be completely replaced and warned that the enforcement powers of Luxembourg judges would mean that Northern Irish citizens would be subjected to EU law without democratic consent.
“I think that has to change if we are to find governance arrangements that people can live with,” he said.
EU sources stressed that Mr Sefcovic’s “Enhanced Opportunities Package” was not created in response to the Lisbon speech, but aimed at solving “practical problems” affecting people and businesses on both sides of the Irish border, and at the same time maintaining the peace and stability brought about by the Good Friday Agreement and maintaining the integrity of the internal market.
When asked if he was expecting a positive response from London, the Vice-President of the Commission said: “I really hope that we share the same goal of peace, stability and prosperity in the island of Ireland, and I hope we do the same I am sure that the companies and people in Northern Ireland will benefit from it. “
But wiping over the UK’s previous failure to comply with the data exchange and controls on imports promised in the 2019 agreement, he said: “We are showing flexibility, but the remaining controls must be properly carried out.”
A UK government spokesman said London would look at the package “seriously and constructively” and was ready to work “hard” on the talks.
However, the spokesman added: “The next step should be intensive discussions on our two proposals, which will be held quickly to see if there is a common ground for finding a solution.
“Substantial changes, addressing the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, need to be made if we are to achieve a lasting agreement that will require assistance in Northern Ireland.”
The CBI called on both sides to “seize this opportunity to come back to the table and agree on sustainable long-term solutions”.
And the UK Chambers of Commerce warned the government not to let their concerns about the ECJ get in the way of an agreement.
“For companies focused on getting the economy back on track after the pandemic, the last thing UK companies need is the risk of 10% tariffs on UK auto exports to the EU or the whole deal being suspended or even canceled will.
“Both sides must soon reach a balanced deal that focuses on cutting down the controls on companies under the protocol, rather than disputes over different legal systems that have not been raised by the business community,” said BCC commercial policy chief William Bain.
DUP Chairman Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the EU proposals were “a welcome recognition that the NI protocol has not worked and has not received the approval of the Northern Ireland trade union community”.
However, he warned that the Sefcovic package “is nowhere near the basis for a sustainable solution” as it envisages the survival of a “failed protocol”.