Politics

Brussels is told to keep the European court out of NI Brexit deal

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But the Government has told Brussels it wants to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the region.

Leavers said the EU’s refusal to do so showed Brussels cannot be trusted and was using Brexit rules in Northern Ireland as a “weapon”.

Former Brexit minister David Jones said the demand to end the jurisdiction must be a UK “red line”.

He added: “If you look at the way the EU has been applying the protocol it’s very hard to trust them not to revert to it and to seek the approval of the courts for doing whatever they do.

“We can’t leave it with a bit of tinkering at the edges. What they appear to be suggesting is that they would apply the protocol in the way that we thought they would be applying it at the outset.

“So it’s quite clear that they are not beyond using the protocol as a weapon against the UK and I frankly wouldn’t trust them not to do the same again.”

The protocol was drawn up to prevent a hard Irish border because Northern Ireland became the frontier with the EU.

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But it has caused tensions in Belfast after Brussels took a hardline approach to enforcing agreement.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the proposals “fall far short of the fundamental change needed”. He added: “We have a window of opportunity to get this right. The prize for doing so will be great for both sides but most of all for the people of Northern Ireland who can break free from the protocol infecting day-today decisions.”

Brexit minister Lord Frost said the protocol was being enforced “without any sort of democratic process”. He said: “We need to find a solution that everybody in Northern Ireland can get behind and provides a better balance and supports the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement fully.”

Brussels put forward changes to rules covering food and drinks products, customs and medicine. The reforms include cutting spot checks on retail goods by 80 per cent. Paperwork must still be submitted ahead of shipping but the amount of vet-approved export-health certificates would be drastically reduced.

The ban on chilled meat, such as sausages, would also be relaxed but products would have to be clearly labelled so they do not end up on sale over the border in the Republic of Ireland.

It comes after various grace periods on full implementation of the protocol after tensions in Northern Ireland over the impact of trade rules. But the package does not include measures to allow pets to travel freely into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The EU said its proposals on customs will halve the volume of paperwork needed on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland through expansion of trusted trader arrangements.

Lord Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic will hold talks tomorrow over dinner.

Mr Sefcovic said: “We have listened to, and engaged with Northern Irish stakeholders, from political leaders to businesses and a cross-section of civic society. Our proposed solutions are a direct response to concerns they raised.”

The Government said the proposals will be looked at “seriously”.

A spokesman said: “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.”

Sean McGuire, CBI Europe director, said: “The UK and EU have listened to business on many of the technical solutions needed to protect GB-NI trade. Both sides must get back round the table – and agree sustainable solutions that work for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland.”

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COMMENT BY PATRICK O’FLYNN

After more than five years of turmoil, our Brexit battles with Brussels may be drawing to a satisfactory conclusion.

Despite the EU insisting for months that arrangements governing trade with Northern Ireland could not be substantially altered, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has been instructed to sue for peace with the UK.

The best efforts of France to instigate a new trade war with Britain over the Aukus defence alliance and withheld fishing licences have been thwarted. The EU’s famed “solidarity” has collapsed.

Most EU member states appear ready to take the UK up on a post-divorce offer of a new era of friendship in return for radically redrafting the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.

Brussels is on the back foot because it is now widely understood that not only is the UK Government serious about ditching the protocol, but that it is legally entitled to do so.

Article 16 of the agreement, which permits a signatory to suspend parts of the protocol, requires only that the deal should be causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or… diversion of trade”. Arguably it is doing all those things, as shortages, bottlenecks and backlogs at ports and angry loyalist demonstrations have demonstrated.

Chief negotiator Lord Frost’s speech in Lisbon earlier this week showed that the UK Government is closing in on a reordering of the deal, potentially removing the role of the European Court of Justice as the arbiter of disputes.

Mr Sefcovic has not offered that, but has sought to address many other issues. Red tape will be slashed so that, for example, only one export health certificate is required for mixed consignments of animal-based products, rather than dozens. And EU inspectors will carry out only minimal checks on goods at low risk of crossing the Irish border into the EU.

Chilled meats, including sausages, will move freely so long as they are correctly labelled. The EU will also ensure the free flow of medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU has also undertaken to improve consultation with the region’s political parties and business groups.

And Sefcovic also made clear this forms the basis of intensive further talks. “I invite the UK Government to engage with us earnestly and intensively on all our proposals,” he said.

There is even speculation of a Brussels fudge on the ECJ, perhaps by creating a new junior bipartisan body to rule on day-to-day disputes.

It is the EU bending over backwards, largely because most of its member states are weary of aggravation with a major export market like the UK and want to focus on economic recovery.

The question now for the PM and Lord Frost is whether to ally with Brexit purists and Unionists for whom any EU role in Northern Ireland is anathema or agree on more limited improvements.

One way or another the days of the EU tangling up shipments of goods from one part of the UK to another are ending.

  • PATRICK O’FLYNN is a Political Commentator

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