EU drafts N. Ireland plan to avert collision with UK

This Dec 9, 2020 photo shows flags of the Union Jack and the EU ahead of Britain's prime minister's meeting on post Brexit trade deal with European Commission president, in Brussels. (OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL / AFP)

The European Union is drafting proposals to address British concerns about trade flows between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to be presented as early as next week.

The EU will offer greater flexibility in shipping pharmaceuticals into Northern Ireland and the process for inspecting food products while simplifying customs checks and providing a bigger role for local institutions, according to a senior EU official.

The European Union will offer greater flexibility in shipping pharmaceuticals into Northern Ireland and the process for inspecting food products while simplifying customs checks and providing a bigger role for local institutions, according to a senior EU official

That’s still a long way short of UK demands that the EU scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs trade flows between Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish republic in the post-Brexit period. The EU has said that it won’t renegotiate the protocol, but is willing to make adjustments to ease bottlenecks between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to customs check between the two parts of his country as part of his Brexit accord with the EU so that most of the UK could be free of EU regulations without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland. But since signing the deal, Johnson has refused to implement key elements of the protocol and has unilaterally extended the grace period designed to ease the transition on two occasions.

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Unless the EU backs down in the next few weeks, the UK is threatening to invoke Article 16 of the protocol, which gives either side the right to suspend parts of the agreement if it causes “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.” In that instance, the EU would have the right to take reciprocal measures to safeguard the integrity of the single market and that could disrupt the broader trading relationship between the two sides.

Another European diplomat said the EU could challenge the UK’s right to invoke Article 16 under the current circumstances and it could lead to a drawn-out legal tussle.

The European Commission considers that the UK hasn’t done enough to demonstrate it intends to honor its obligations under the protocol. While European officials have been given access to the computer systems which register goods entering Northern Ireland, the UK hasn’t made progress on building the physical infrastructure needed for the border checks.

EU officials are also due to meet their British counterparts Monday and Tuesday to discuss the future status of Gibraltar, the official said. Spain and the UK agreed in December to move the EU border to Gibraltar’s port and airport to avoid disrupting the daily flow of workers into and out of the territory from Spain.

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The presence of Spanish security forces on Gibraltarian territory has proved a sticking point and the EU member states have suggested that European border agents police the frontier as well.