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The EU will on Wednesday unveil a package of measures intended to reduce bureaucracy associated with the controversial post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The proposals from the European Commission come in response to UK demands for a radical rewriting of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which was agreed to avoid a return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
EU officials briefed on the document said the measures could reduce the amount of customs and regulatory checks on the new Irish Sea border by up to half. The measures will be published in full later on Wednesday.
The commission has said it hopes the proposals, which one official described as “far-reaching”, will defuse the stand-off over the post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, which has dogged UK-EU relations since it came into force in January.
However, the UK government has warned that the protocol is “not sustainable” because the level of border checks is impeding trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and creating distortions in the UK’s internal market. Under the terms of the protocol, all goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must comply with EU customs rules.
As well as reduced friction at the border, the UK has demanded the removal of the oversight of the EU’s top court from the deal — a request that is not expected to be addressed in Wednesday’s paper.
Lord David Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, warned on Tuesday that the EU would be making a “historic misjudgement” if it did not engage on addressing the question of the role of the European Court of Justice in governing post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.
The UK, which agreed to the role of the ECJ when it signed the protocol in January 2020, now says that it is an unacceptable impingement on UK sovereignty.
The EU has instead argued that the focus should be on reducing the frictions experienced by businesses in order to make the protocol function better and allow Northern Ireland companies to benefit from privileged access to the EU single market.
Mairead McGuinness, Ireland’s EU commissioner in charge of financial services, said ahead of the release of the new proposals that they would provide answers to “the real practical problems” faced by businesses.
EU officials said data would be central to reducing checks, with companies able to show their products are not destined for the Republic of Ireland having much-reduced paperwork.
Northern Ireland trade groups, which were closely consulted by the European Commission and provided a list of issues they wanted addressed, gave an early welcome to reports of what the EU is expected to unveil.
Aodhán Connolly, convener of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, said they appeared to match many of their requests. “A lot of what is coming out this evening is indeed very close to what the NI Business Brexit Working Group has been asking for,” he said on Twitter.
Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party chair, said the early accounts of the commission’s proposals were “welcome”, but added that it was important there was “fundamental change” to the protocol. “We will look at them and engage properly with them,” he told Sky News.
Dowden also repeated Downing Street’s insistence that Frost’s demand that the ECJ be expunged from the Northern Ireland protocol was “not a deal breaker”.
Nonetheless, Downing Street has said it remains a “central” British demand, raising questions about whether negotiations can reach a successful conclusion given that the EU side is adamant it will not renegotiate the fundamental legal tenets of the protocol.
Lord Gavin Barwell, ex-chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May, denounced Frost’s demand for a total rewrite of the Northern Ireland protocol. “The absolute state of David Frost trashing the deal he negotiated + hailed as a triumph,” he said on Twitter.
Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser of Boris Johnson, said the prime minister “never had a scoobydoo what the deal he signed meant”.
This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/8cdf9824-8c29-4cc8-a88b-81a200a5508c