Brexit: EU to set out 'practical solutions' as UK demands changes to Northern Ireland Protocol

·5-min read

The EU is expected to outline its response to UK demands to alter post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland following this summer's tense "sausage war" between the two sides.

According to reports, the EU will offer to scrap up to 50% of customs checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland, as well as removing more than half the checks on meat and plants too.

Speaking to Sky News on Wednesday, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said such a move would be "welcome" and added the UK would study the proposals from Brussels carefully.

"The government as a whole will engage fully, constructively with these proposals," he told Kay Burley.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic is set to hold a news conference on Wednesday afternoon in which he will deliver Brussels's verdict on UK proposals for the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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The senior EU politician will speak a day after UK Brexit minister Lord Frost demanded a "new" Protocol - which was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland - be thrashed out between London and Brussels as he claimed the current arrangements are "not working".

UK wants 'fundamental change' in NI Protocol

In a speech in the Portuguese capital Lisbon on Tuesday, Lord Frost delivered a series of barbs at Brussels as he accused the EU of being an organisation "that doesn't always look like" it wants the UK to succeed.

The Conservative peer - who has passed a suggested new legal text to the EU - also called for the removal of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from oversight of the Protocol.

And he reiterated his threat that the UK could suspend post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland by triggering Article 16 of the Protocol.

Mr Dowden told Sky News it was "important that there is fundamental change to the Northern Ireland Protocol so we'll be looking to see that, but let's see exactly what the EU comes up with".

He also suggested the UK's demands around the role of the ECJ were not a red line in the talks, but stressed it was a "major issue".

But Labour's shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said people would be "scratching their heads" at the UK government's latest move.

"This was an agreement signed by Boris Johnson, he said it was a fantastic triumph, it was all going to be fine - and now they want to rip up their own protocol," he told Sky News.

Referring to the prime minister's past claim that his deal was "oven-ready", Mr Miliband instead described it as "half-baked".

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson's former chief adviser has suggested the PM did not understand the full implications of his Brexit deal.

In a series of tweets, Dominic Cummings said: "What I've said does NOT mean 'the PM was lying in General Election 2019', he never had a scoobydoo what the deal he signed meant.

"He never understood what leaving Customs Union meant until November 2020."

Mr Cummings added that when Mr Johnson did finally understand, "he was babbling 'I'd never have signed it if I'd understood it' (but that WAS a lie)".

He also said it was always the aim to get "the trolley" - his derogatory nickname for the PM - to "ditch the bits we didn't like" after winning the 2019 election.

EU seeking 'positive reaction' from UK negotiators

Ahead of Mr Sefcovic's own response to Lord Frost's demands, another senior European Commission figure expressed his hope that the EU's own proposals would be met with a positive reception in London.

Frans Timmermans, a fellow European Commission vice president to Mr Sefcovic, told Sky News: "We just want to find practical solutions for the problems of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.

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"And we'll be in that mode tomorrow when we discuss it in the College of Commissioners and we will continue to follow that line.

"We know that there are some objective difficulties in Northern Ireland for citizens and businesses and we want to be part of solving those and we will make some practical propositions to solve them.

"Let's try and find practical solutions to this and let's not try and politicise it too much."

Asked about the UK's threat to trigger Article 16 and suspend the Protocol, Mr Timmermans added: "That's up to them to do, that's what they could do if they want to, but our focus is on finding solutions.

"How do you help the people in Northern Ireland and the businesses in Northern Ireland by triggering Article 16?

"Why not just try and find practical solutions? We will make some propositions tomorrow and hopefully they will be met with a positive reaction from the British side."

How Irish leaders have responded

Lord Frost's demands to remove the ECJ from oversight of the Protocol met resistance elsewhere within the EU.

Irish deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar warned the UK's requests would be "very hard to accept" in Brussels.

"The role of the European Court of Justice is there to adjudicate the rules of the single market," he told a news conference in Dublin.

"I don't think we could ever have a situation where another court could decide what the rules of the single market are."

Irish prime minister Micheal Martin said Mr Sefcovic had worked in "good faith" and "epitomised the spirit of the Commission's consistent strong support for the Good Friday Agreement".

"If everyone is operating in good faith, and if the focus is on addressing disruption in trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, then these proposals address the problem and respect the treaties we all agreed to," he said.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party never supported the Protocol due to its imposition of checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has warned both the UK government and EU against "tinkering around the edges with temporary fixes".

"The Protocol does not have the support of a single elected unionist in Northern Ireland. If it is not replaced, then it will condemn Northern Ireland to further harm and instability," he said.

"We need a long-term solution which will then allow us all to plan and get back to focusing on fixing our public services rather debating the Protocol."

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