EU hopes ‘actions will follow’ softer tone from UK in NI Brexit dispute

The European Union’s Brexit negotiator said he hopes “actions will follow the words” in the UK’s change of tone in finding a solution to the dispute over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic was speaking ahead of a meeting with Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost today on progress in technical talks to break the impasse.

Mr Sefcovic told an online Brexit conference that the EU made proposals last month for “a unique and completely new model” for how goods can be moved from Britain to Northern Ireland under the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

“Right now, we need the UK government to reciprocate the significant move the EU has made,” the EU negotiator told Dublin City University’s Brexit Institute.

“I notice and welcome the recent change of tone from the UK government and we hope that actions will follow the words.”

The UK is pushing for changes to the 2019 agreement on Northern Ireland, the special arrangements designed to stop Brexit creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Unionists argue that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s position in the UK by creating a trade barrier on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.

As a consequence, London has threatened to trigger article 16 of the protocol, a move that would suspend parts of the deal. The EU has warned of “very serious consequences” if this happened.

Britain has since softened its position on its threat. Technical talks have been taking place over recent weeks with a focus on customs and the movement of medicines from Britain to the North.

‘Practical solutions’

Mr Sefcovic said that Brussels was focused on “practical solutions” that can deliver “a real difference for people and businesses in Northern Ireland and strengthen the opportunities”.

The EU’s proposals would reduce up to 80 per cent of the health and sanitation checks and lead to a 50 per cent “permanent reduction” in the existing paperwork on customs, he said.

“These measures would create a type of express lane, which would substantially facilitate trade between all parties – a win-win situation,” he said.

He stressed again the EU would not renegotiate the protocol because this would risk stability in Northern Ireland and was unnecessary because solutions are available within the protocol.

Mr Sefcovic tied the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement directly to the post-Brexit EU-UK trade agreement, saying that the “divorce” was “a precondition” for the future trade agreement.

“The two agreements are intrinsically linked; one cannot exist without the other,” he said.

He told the conference that the EU would keep in touch with stakeholders in Northern Ireland during the discussion with the UK “because we need to keep our finger on the pulse”.

The EU remained “constructive, firm and responsible” in its discussion with the UK, he said.

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