The EU has gone to the limits of what it can do to resolve the problems of post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland, the bloc’s ambassador to the UK has said.
The European Commission has laid out measures to slash 80% of regulatory checks and dramatically cut customs processes on the movement of goods, especially food and farming produce, between Britain and the island of Ireland.
The Government welcomed the announcement on Wednesday night, signalling that it wants “intensive talks” to follow the EU’s proposals.
At the same time, however, a Government spokesman said there has to to be “significant changes” to the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement if there is to be a “durable settlement”.
But speaking on BBC2’s Newsnight, ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels has gone the “extra mile” and cannot go any further.
“Today we went to the limits of what we can do to address the problems of Northern Ireland because we care for Northern Ireland. These problems were caused by Brexit,” he said.
He stressed that the EU cannot accede to a key British demand to remove the role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the protocol.
“There is no single market without the European Court of Justice. It’s the referee of the single market,” he said.
In a statement, a Government spokesman said of the EU proposals: “We are studying the detail and will of course look at them 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.
“Significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree a durable settlement which commands support in Northern Ireland.”
The scaled-back checking regime proposed by the EU would also remove the prospect of certain British produce, including Cumberland sausages, being banned from export to the region.
The EU plan also includes a 50% reduction in customs paperwork required to move products into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
In return, the trading bloc has asked for safeguards to be implemented to provide extra assurances that products said to be destined for Northern Ireland do not end up crossing the Irish border.
Those include labelling of certain products, making clear they are for sale in the UK only, and enhanced monitoring of supply chain movements and access to real-time trade flow information.
EU Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said the bloc has put in a lot of hard work to come up with an “alternative model” for implementing the protocol.
“We have explored every possible angle of the protocol and, at times, went beyond current EU law,” he told a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday.
He added: “With this robust package of practical, imaginative solutions we can continue to implement the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland for the benefit of all communities on the ground.
“It not only cements stability and predictability, an indispensable ingredient for the local economy to flourish, but also paves the way for enhanced opportunities.”
While the range of measures would go some way to reducing everyday friction on trade caused by the protocol, they do not address the UK demand over the role of the ECJ.
UK Brexit minister Lord Frost has made clear the removal of the court’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.
The European Commission has insisted it will not move on the ECJ issue.
Lord Frost has warned that the UK could move to suspend parts of the protocol, by triggering the Article 16 mechanism, if an acceptable compromise cannot be reached.
He insisted the reach of the ECJ is a key issue, telling broadcasters: “The problem with the protocol at the moment is that EU law, with the ECJ as the enforcer of it, is applied in Northern Ireland without any sort of democratic process.”
“So that, I think, has to change if we’re to find governance arrangements that people can live with.”
The EU plan amounts to a set of counterproposals in response to a wish list of protocol reforms outlined by the UK Government in July.
The proposals from both sides are now set to form the basis of a new round of negotiations between Brussels and London in the weeks ahead.
The Northern Ireland 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 Great 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.
On Wednesday evening, the EU’s proposals were welcomed by Irish political leaders, with Taoiseach Micheal Martin describing them as “the obvious way forward and the obvious way out of the issues”.