Tue | Sep 28, 2021

Stand-off over renegotiation of North Ireland rules in brexit pact

Published:Friday | July 23, 2021 | 12:07 AM
Police patrol the port of Larne, Northern Ireland, in February.
AP Police patrol the port of Larne, Northern Ireland, in February.

The head of the European Union’s executive arm flatly refused Thursday to renegotiate post-brexit trade rules with the United Kingdom after Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the bloc to work with his government to find “practical solutions” to red tape and inspections that are causing shortages of some goods in Northern Ireland.

Johnson called European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to lay out the UK’s proposed changes a day after British officials publicly said the trading rules the government negotiated with the EU “cannot go on”. Post-brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland have further strained already difficult relations between the EU and its former member.

“The EU will continue to be creative and flexible within the Protocol framework,’’ von der Leyen said in a tweet after the call from Johnson. “But we will not renegotiate.’’

Since the UK left the EU’s economic sphere at the beginning of the year, relations have soured over Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that has a land border with the 27-nation bloc. The divorce deal struck before Britain’s departure means customs and border checks must be conducted on some goods shipped to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The rules were intended to protect a key pillar of the peace process in Northern Ireland, an open border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member. But the arrangement has angered Northern Ireland’s unionists because they say it amounts to a border in the Irish Sea that weakens ties to the rest of the UK.

EU officials contend the rules are necessary to protect the European single market from goods that don’t meet its standards for food safety and animal welfare.

Britain says the EU is taking a “purist” approach to the rules that is causing unnecessary red tape for businesses and has called for the bloc to show “pragmatism”.

Severe burden

UK brexit minister David Frost said Wednesday that Britain had tried to implement the arrangements “in good faith” but that they were causing a severe burden in Northern Ireland.

Frost said Britain was seeking a “standstill period” that would maintain a moratorium on some checks and goods restrictions while a permanent solution is found. Ultimately, Britain is seeking to remove most checks, replacing them with a “light touch” system in which only goods at risk of entering the EU would be inspected. But the low level of trust between the two sides makes that difficult.

Johnson told Von der Leyen that the current situation was “unsustainable,” the prime minister’s Downing Street office said in a statement released after their call.

“He urged the EU to look at those proposals seriously and work with the UK on them,” Downing Street said. “There is a huge opportunity to find reasonable, practical solutions to the difficulties facing people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and thereby to put the relationship between the UK and the EU on a better footing.

EU Commission spokesperson Arianna Podesta said the EU would continue discussions with the UK and that Maros Sefcovic, the bloc’s lead brexit official, is looking forward to speaking with Frost. A date for a new meeting between the pair has yet to be scheduled.

Following the UK’s latest demands, industry group Manufacturing NI said it’s essential that both sides find practical solutions to make their deal work.

“Both parties owe it to the people in Northern Ireland to skip the drama and get on with dialogue and decision-making,” the group said. “Working with business will bring real-life experience and ideas. Including business will improve trust and the relationship.”