Brussels offers adjustments to the Irish protocol, but not the full renegotiation of the agreement

Updated Wednesday, October 13, 2021 –

The EU proposes to reduce the 80% of the sanitary controls and 50% of the customs paperwork that plague the Northern Irish

A ‘currency exchange’ sign on the Irish border.REUTERS
  • Brexit London calls on the EU for “major changes” to customs protocols in Northern Ireland

To practical problems, practical solutions. The Northern Ireland protocol is not fully operational, it generates significant economic and bureaucratic costs and those most affected on the island have called for adjustments, so Brussels now proposes reduce administrative obstacles by up to 50% customs and up to 80% physical controls of goods that are not high risk. It is not what London asked for, but it is the maximum that the EU seems willing to grant without jeopardizing the Single Market, the authority of the Court of Justice and the spirit of what was signed with Boris Johnson after three long years of exhausting negotiations. That s: all conditional on Johnson starting at once to comply with what he signed, labeling the goods that cannot reach Ireland, constructing facilities for the inspectors and giving real-time access to goods entry databases.

The package announced by the European Commission responds to four areas: the aforementioned customs and phytosanitary examinations, but also to the field of medicines and the participation of the main actors in the area, from political parties that want direct dialogue with Brussels to civil associations and business groups. The idea is to drastically reduce the time and costs required to process orders, unload boats, buy in the UK. Local entrepreneurs have been adapting to the new reality, they have more or less controlled the procedure, but they explain that it is too onerous, and the new battery of suggestions could alleviate the bulk of their burden. The decision, however, is not made by them, but by the British Executive.

The EU is ready to adjust, to alleviate, to retouch everything that can be improved, but refuses to renegotiate protocol and renounce safeguards, just as Lord Frost’s speech yesterday in Lisbon seemed to demand. “It is the only viable solution”, explain senior community sources, assuming in any case that, once again, transfers will be made without any guarantee of success and despite countless slights, provocations and breaches. An illustrative example for neighbors, such as Switzerland or Turkey, who are complying.

The protocol took three long years to reach a consensus and it is clear that it is complicated, hard and entails sacrifices, but it is the inevitable result of Brexit. It was not the only way out, but London rejected all the others, from remaining in the Single Market to remaining in the Customs Union, passing through the so-called ‘backstop’, the guarantee of last resort that Theresa May accepted to cover the whole of the UK. Johnson refused and preferred a solution that left Northern Ireland exposed, and now the consequences are showing in the streets. “I have listened to Northern Irish stakeholders and today’s proposals are our sincere response to their concerns. We have worked hard to bring about real change on the ground. We look forward to collaborating seriously and intensely with the Government of the United Kingdom, in the interest of all the communities of Northern Ireland “, the Community Vice President said aseptically this Wednesday. Maros Sefcovic, the negotiator with London since the departure of Michel barnier. What there is is the fault of London and its elections, but pragmatism must prevail, says the team of Von der Leyen.

The ideas are simple, but the implementation is complicated, as London has not done its part at any point in the process. It has not given real-time access to customs databases, it is not labeling products, it boycotts inspectors. The idea is that goods that come from the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland to stay there, without reaching the single market via the Republic of Ireland, pass less real controls. But for this, the United Kingdom must commit to doing what it must, from labeling specifying that products cannot leave the United Kingdom to building the agreed facilities for border controls, going through actually carrying out examinations in the supply chains looking for irregularities. Brussels also asks for a rapid reaction mechanism in return to resolve any identified problems and the right to unilateral action if London does not resolve clearly identified deficiencies. If there is understanding, four out of every five phytosanitary controls carried out now (not counting live animals) will disappear.

Regarding the customs issue, if the United Kingdom articulates controls and gives real-time access to the databases 50% of all paperwork could be eliminated which is currently a nightmare for companies, imported or exported. The thing is, that was already signed and has never been applied, so the perverse incentive for the UK to persist in default is clear.

If everything went ahead, and it depends on the negotiation that starts today, more companies, especially SMEs, could benefit from the exemption regime for products, and the list of assets considered risk-free will be expanded. On medicines, one of the main concerns on the streets of Northern Ireland, the Commission will accept that pharmaceutical companies based in Great Britain, but supplying Northern Ireland, can maintain their regulatory functions as before, without the need for a local headquarters such as it was fixed in the protocol. Perhaps the most complicated element because it would force the EU to modify its problems rules, and that, depending on the formula that is chosen, yet to be determined, could require the approval of a European Parliament very hostile to London.

Brussels plays the maturity card, a paternalistic tone before an irresponsible and non-compliant former partner. There is a part of the Union, led by France that these days clashes for fishing reasons with its neighbors on the other side of the channel, that wants more firmness, that thinks that there are too many concessions. And another, as pragmatic as it is conservative, that prefers small concessions, unfair and dangerousas background they may be, than to go to the open clash and risk London activating Article 16 of the protocol, paralyzing it and unleashing a legal and tariff battle. Without a government in Berlin, with elections in the spring in France and a crisis over the price of electricity, there are already too many fronts open. Something that London knows and exploits, albeit from a weakened position and, in many latitudes, even ridiculed.

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