EU set to cut red tape caused by protocol but rebuff UK demand on role of judges

A sign on the main road on the approach to Larne port. Picture by Stephen Davison, Pacemaker

EU proposals on Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol are expected to slash red tape on Irish Sea trade but fall short of a UK demand on axing the role of European judges.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic will unveil a series of measures early this evening aimed at addressing issues around customs paperwork and the movement of agri-food goods and medicines between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mr Sefcovic, who has promised the proposals will be “very far reaching”, has also pledged to offer more of a consultative role for politicians and civic society in Northern Ireland on how the contentious trading arrangements operate.

The EU plan is expected to significantly reduce the volume of paperwork and checks required under the protocol on goods being shipped into Northern Ireland from Britain.

Issues around looming bans on the import of some GB products into Northern Ireland, such as chilled meats, are also set to be addressed in the proposals.

While the range of measures will potentially go some way to reducing everyday friction on trade caused by the protocol, they are unlikely to satisfy a UK Government demand over the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Yesterday, UK Brexit minister Lord Frost made clear the removal of the ECJ’s oversight function in policing the protocol is a red line for the government if a compromise deal is to be struck.

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.

Mr Sefcovic has insisted the EU will not move on the ECJ issue.

He has pointed out that Northern Ireland would be unable to retain single market access – a key provision of the protocol – if the arrangement is not subject to oversight by European judges.

It is anticipated that the EU proposals, along with a wish list of reforms outlined by the government in July, will form the basis of a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London in the weeks ahead.

Ahead of the publication of the EU proposals, co-chairman of the Conservative Party Oliver Dowden said the UK Government will engage “fully and constructively” with what is put forward.

But he insisted the oversight role of the ECJ is a “major issue”.

He told Sky News: “There are many, many international treaties that have independent courts and arbitration mechanisms for them that don’t belong to one party or the other and I think it’s appropriate that we should engage with the EU to see how we can resolve that.”

His comments came as the British prime minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings claimed Boris Johnson never understood the terms of the Brexit deal he had signed.

Posting on Twitter, Mr Cummings claimed it had always been the intention to get Mr Johnson to “ditch the bits we didn’t like” once he had won the 2019 general election.

Responding to that claim, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it indicates that international leaders should not enter any agreements with the UK Government until they are confident it will keep its promises.

“Those comments are very alarming because that would indicate that this is a Government, an administration, that acted in bad faith and that message needs to be heard around the world,” Mr Varadkar told RTÉ.

The 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.

The arrangements have created new economic barriers on goods moving from 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.

However, other businesses have benefited from the terms of the protocol, which provides Northern Ireland traders unique unfettered access to sell within the UK internal market and EU single market.

Mr Sefcovic has already signalled that the EU is willing to change legislation to ensure no disruption of medical supplies into Northern Ireland.

Under the original terms of the protocol, the north was to fall within the EU regulatory zone for medicines from 2022 – a move that would have restricted the ability to import products from Britain.

On the thorny issue of judicial oversight, Mr Sefcovic has indicated that movement on ECJ involvement in policing the protocol should not be expected in the proposals.

Addressing a virtual event in Dublin last week, he said: “If we are talking about the constructive solutions to the practical problems, I think that doing away with the European Court of Justice is not one of them.”

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