Northern Ireland news

European Commission ‘committed to pragmatic solutions to NI trade problems'

Trucks leaving Larne Port.  Picture by Brian Lawless, Press Association
David Young and Michael McHugh, PA

Maros Sefcovic said he is committed to finding pragmatic solutions to problems facing Northern Ireland’s traders after Brexit.

The European Commission vice president and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove held virtual discussions with business representatives affected by disruption associated with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

New paperwork and checks required under the protocol designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland have hampered movement of some goods entering the region from Great Britain.

Mr Sefcovic said he enjoyed: “Constructive meetings with business and civic society in Northern Ireland on challenges they face on the ground.

“(They) will help guide Joint Committee work.”

Traders have called for pragmatism and political will on the part of the EU, which is part of a Joint Committee with the UK overseeing the protocol’s workings.

They expect to have greater access to powerful voices in Brussels to voice their concerns in future.

Mr Sefcovic said: “Together with Michael Gove, (I am) committed to the proper implementation of Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol and finding pragmatic solutions.”

The arrangements have heightened political tensions, with unionists and loyalists angered at the imposition of economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Amid calls for action to address some of the trading problems created by the protocol, Mr Sefcovic has expressed willingness to show flexibility.

But he has insisted the arrangements agreed with the UK Government will not be scrapped.

After one of today’s remote discussions, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhan Connolly said it is vital the views of businesses are heard.

“This was an important meeting but it must be the start of a comprehensive dialogue including the establishment of a business consultative body to ensure the EU and UK can hear business concerns and use the expertise of the NI business community in finding solutions to the challenges we face,” he said.

Mr Connolly said the April 1 end of a number of grace periods, which currently limit the extent of red tape required under the protocol, could heap “unprecedented pressure” on supply chains.

And he said that, to countermand those pressures, traders and retailers need stability, certainty, simplicity and affordability.

“The business community has proven that it will use best endeavours to make things work,” said Mr Connolly.

“We now need the EU and the UK to show that they have the political will to live up to their side of the bargain.”

Thursday’s discussions were part of the EU and UK Government’s attempts to canvass the views of traders and other civic society representatives in Northern Ireland on the impact of the new Irish Sea trade arrangements.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber representing businesses, said it was a useful meeting.

She added that agreeing better ties with Brussels could help smooth challenges and reach more compromises.

“We agreed to keep the conversation going, with the appropriately powerful vehicle to address the wider challenges that we are raising.

“We felt listened to but also we felt that we agreed on actions that will enable us to continue to overcome barriers for our businesses.”

The Commission committed to establishing a business reference group for Northern Ireland to help raise issues and find solutions at senior levels, the Northern Ireland business leader said.

She added: “It means that we will be speaking to people with the ability to change things.”

The Swiss model has been suggested as a way to ease disruption on Great Britain to Northern Ireland shipping.

Under the terms of the protocol, the region has remained in the single market for goods.

That means products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain must comply with strict EU rules on animal and plant health.

Traders must now complete a range of new processes and checks to ship animal-based food products and plants across the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland.

The agreement the EU has with Switzerland avoids such checks because the Swiss align their own regulations on animal and plant health with the bloc’s.

When the EU changes its rules, the Swiss change theirs to ensure continued alignment.

The protocol is not yet fully functioning as a number of grace periods are in operation that limit the number of certifications and declarations required to move goods.

These exemptions will lapse at different points in the weeks and months ahead. Two key ones – related to checks on some supermarket goods and customs declarations on parcels – end on March 31.

Mr Gove has urged the Commission to grant extensions to January 2023 to provide space to find resolutions.

Unionists politicians in Northern Ireland, who believe checks at ports and extra red tape jeopardises the region’s constitutional position with the UK, have demanded the protocol is scrapped entirely.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s Economy Secretary has called for support for businesses to cut through bureaucracy post-Brexit, as well as a simplification of new trading rules.

In a letter to Mr Gove, Fiona Hyslop said firms in Scotland will need financial backing, she suggests grants or tax credits, to enable them to hire customs advisers to decipher new rules following the end of the transition period.

The UK Government has already announced a £20 million fund for small and medium (SME) businesses to deal with issues caused by the new rules.

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