The European Union is working on proposals to address British concerns about trade flows between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. These proposals are due to be submitted next week.
The Irish border issue has long been the biggest stumbling block in the Brexit negotiations. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU means that the EU will have an external border on the island. Indeed, Ireland remains with the EU,but Northern Ireland is leaving the United Kingdom. For example, the 500-kilometre border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would suddenly become a ‘hard’ border (read: with strict border controls) – politically a very sensitive issue in a still flammable region.
According to a senior EU official, the EU will offer more flexibility when shipping pharmaceuticals to Northern Ireland, and when inspecting food. Customs controls will also be simplified and local institutions will be given a greater role.
This is a long way from meeting the UK’s demand for the EU to abolish the Northern Ireland protocol, which regulates trade flows between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the post-Brexit period. The EU has said that it will not renegotiate the protocol, but is prepared to make adjustments to alleviate bottlenecks between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to customs control between the two parts of his country as part of his Brexit agreement with the EU. The intention was that most of the UK could be free from EU regulation without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland. But since the signing of the agreement, Johnson has refused to implement important elements of the protocol and has twice unilaterally extended the transitional period to facilitate the transition.
If the EU does not back down in the coming weeks, the UK threatens to invoke Article 16 of the protocol, which gives both parties the right to suspend parts of the agreement if it causes “serious economic, social or environmental problems”. In this case, the EU would have the right to take reciprocal measures to safeguard the integrity of the internal market and this could distort the wider trade relationship between the two parties.
Another European diplomat noted by Bloomberg that the EU could challenge the UK’s right to invoke Article 16 under the current circumstances and that this could lead to a lengthy legal battle.
The European Commission believes that the UK has not done enough to demonstrate that it will meet its obligations under the protocol. While European officials have been given access to the computer systems for registering goods entering Northern Ireland, the UK has made no progress in building the physical infrastructure necessary for border controls.