The EU on Wednesday offered to reduce customs controls and paperwork on British goods destined for its Northern Ireland province in hopes of avoiding a new Brexit showdown with Britain.
The offer was part of a wide-ranging set of proposals designed to solve problems in post-Brexit trade deals in Northern Ireland that London says are reigniting tensions between communities.
A team of EU negotiators delivered the plans to London on Wednesday, a day after British Brexit Minister David Frost said current policy on Northern Ireland, known as the Protocol, should be broken.
“I have listened and engaged with Northern Irish stakeholders. Today’s proposals are our true response to your concerns, ”said European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.
“We look forward to working seriously and intensively with the UK government, in the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland,” he said.
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Although the EU says it refuses to renegotiate the protocol, a statement said the plans were “a different model” for its implementation and would ease trade problems “to a great extent.”
The design of the protocol was the source of the most friction in Britain’s lengthy divorce from the European Union after it voted to leave the bloc in 2016.
What is at stake is preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland, which is divided between the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU, and Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.
Since the Brexit trade deals began in January, Britain has turned sour on the terms of the protocol it signed and agreed to in its divorce that created a de facto trade border within the UK.
This has required new checkpoints at ports to stop the risk of goods from England, Scotland and Wales entering the EU through the back door.
But the British government singles out pro-UK unionists in Northern Ireland who fear the checkpoints will strengthen the pro-Irish Republicans’ case for a united Ireland and create a schism within Britain.
UE in ‘solution mode’
London has called for a complete rewrite of the protocol, including banishing the role of the EU court to resolve conflicts on its terms, which is not a start for Europeans.
To ease friction, the EU published four texts that focused on a number of problems, including complaints of limited drug supplies, overzealous food safety checks and too much paperwork.
Taken together, the solutions would create a “fast track” for the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, the EU said.
In the meantime, “strong oversight and enforcement” would be maintained to protect the EU from health and safety threats, he said.
The proposals would solve, for example, the so-called “sausage war” in which the British authorities accused the EU of purist food safety standards that would deny refrigerated meats from Northern Ireland.
To keep British-made sausages on the shelves, the UK unilaterally extended the post-Brexit grace periods that allowed their import to Northern Ireland.
The EU has suspended its legal proceedings against the UK on the issue.
Article 16 of the protocol looms over the talks, which gives either party the right to say that it wants to suspend parts of the trade agreement if they believe they are defective.
Britain has threatened to use that provision if the EU does not change its attitude not to renegotiate the protocol.
Activating Article 16 would start a lengthy legal process in which the EU could strike back with trade measures against Great Britain.