Northern Ireland news

EU seeking its own customs officials in NI ports to oversee Protocol

UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has opposed a previous request by the EU to maintain an office in Belfast to oversee the NI Protocol.
Paul Ainsworth

THE European Union is prepared to drop its request to maintain an office in Belfast to oversee trade relations in return for installing 15 customs and veterinary staff at the north's ports once the Brexit transition period ends.

Yesterday's meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee to discuss the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement in London saw reportedly positive progress reached on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which aims to prevent checks on goods at the border between north and south.

A report by RTÉ News yesterday revealed how the EU is offering to drop plans for an EU office in Belfast, and instead will seek to instal officials at ports and Belfast International Airport in order to check goods.

UK Cabinet office minister Michael Gove, who led yesterday's meeting with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, has previously been critical of the EU retaining a Belfast office, describing the idea as a "mini embassy" and insisting it was "not necessary".

In July, the EU said it was no longer seeking a Belfast office, with Stormont senior civil servant Andrew McCormick revealing in July that instead the EU were seeking "sufficient and proportional oversight" of the NI Protocol.

In its report, RTÉ quoted an unnamed official at the EU-UK Joint Committee meeting saying the new ideas on the NI Protocol were a "turning point" in the strained relationship between London and Brussels on the contentious issue.

Describing the need to maintain the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Sefcovic said following the meeting: "For that we need to take a lot of very important technical steps. This morning we showed the constructive spirit and we will redouble our efforts, intensify the frequency of discussions between now and mid-November, when I hope we can meet (Mr) Gove again."

However, he said the UK's controversial Internal Market Bill that would override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the UK and EU remained a problem for both sides.

"I hope and expect that the very controversial parts of the Internal Market Bill will be withdrawn," Mr Sefcovic said.

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