Mixed responses for 'far reaching' EU proposals as DUP warn they 'fall far short'
NEW proposals from the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol to mitigate the impact of the Irish Sea border on goods arriving in the north from Britain received mixed responses from Stormont parties.
Measures by the European Commission would see an 80 per cent reduction in checks on certain food products arriving from Great Britain and intended for sale in shops in Northern Ireland.
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the proposals "fall far short of the fundamental change needed", while the SDLP and Sinn Féin welcomed the potential changes outlined by EU vice president Maros Sefcovic.
Sinn Féin deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said her party have tabled a petition at Stormont to have the Assembly to "reiterate support for the protocol" following the announcement.
Mr Sefcovic unveiled the proposals aimed at slashing the red tape burden on Irish Sea trade created by the post-Brexit settlement.
The new proposals will cut in half the customs paperwork required to move goods into the north from across the Irish Sea, while more products and firms would be exempt from customs tariffs as a result of expanding trusted trader arrangements.
In return for scaling back checks, the EU is asking for safeguards to ensure goods intended for Northern Ireland do not enter the bloc via the Irish border.
The EU has also offered to legislate to ensure no disruption in the supply line of medicines to Northern Ireland, and pledged further engagement with stakeholders in the north.
However, the proposals did not include the key UK and unionist demand to remove the oversight role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Mr Sefcovic said the first time he learned of the ECJ issue was in a UK government Command Paper before the summer.
"We have put a lot of hard work into this package. We have explored every possible angle of the protocol and, at times, went beyond current EU law," he said.
"In effect, we are proposing an alternative model for implementation of the protocol.
"On the one hand the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be facilitated for goods that are to stay in Northern Ireland.
"On the other, robust safeguards and monitoring mechanisms should be put in place to make sure that they stay in Northern Ireland."
A British government spokesman said they would study the EU proposals "seriously and constructively".
"The next step should be intensive talks on both our sets of proposals, rapidly conducted, to determine whether there is common ground to find a solution," he said.
"We need to find a solution which all sides can get behind for the future, which safeguards the Belfast Agreement, and which puts the UK-EU relationship on a stronger footing."
Sir Jeffrey, whose party is boycotting North/South bodies unless changes are made regarding the Protocol, said the DUP will take time to study the detail and urged that future discussions are "not a wasted opportunity".
"It is vital this new round of negotiations does not become another missed opportunity to make fundamental change and to replace the Protocol," he said.
"Short-term fixes will not solve the problems that have beset the UK internal market."
Ms O'Neill described the proposals as "far-reaching" and said her party was seeking a recall of the Assembly to "demonstrate its democratic support for the Protocol and for the efforts of the EU to make it work more smoothly".
She said the proposals demonstrate "both in word and deed that the EU side are living up to their commitments that they made to both business and civic leaders as well as political leaders."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the EU offer proves they are "stretching themselves in the interests of people and businesses in Northern Ireland".
"I would encourage political leaders, and particularly the leaders of unionism, to reflect on the very serious efforts made by the European Commission to ease the challenges with trade flows."
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the proposals were the "obvious way forward" and the Commission had "demonstrated imagination, innovation".
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group said any new arrangements "must meet the tests that have been set out by the NI business community, namely that they must provide stability, certainty, simplicity and affordability".