Brussels has insisted it will not renegotiate the EU’s Brexit deal with the UK after London inflamed tensions by launching a bold push to overhaul trading rules for Northern Ireland.
Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president in charge of relations with the UK, said Brussels “will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol” after the British government said it wanted a new settlement with the EU.
His comments came after Britain warned it was willing to suspend part of its Brexit deal with Brussels unless the EU agreed to new trading rules for Northern Ireland, a persistent source of friction between the two sides.
Britain wants to eliminate most of the checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are mandated under the protocol.
Brandon Lewis, the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, told MPs he wanted to negotiate a new settlement with the EU — but held in reserve the possibility of the UK suspending the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement.
Lewis said it was clear that “the circumstances exist” already to justify the suspension of the protocol, but added: “We have come to the conclusion this is not the right moment to do so.”
Sefcovic said the commission would “continue to engage with the UK” on suggestions made by the UK on Wednesday and “seek creative solutions within the framework of the Protocol”.
Brussels said last month it had made an overture to the UK and Northern Irish citizens by extending a deadline to suspend checks on some types of chilled meats. The European Commission is also in the process of changing its rules on checks on types of medical equipment entering Northern Ireland from mainland UK.
“The Protocol must be implemented. Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance,” said Sefcovic.
Joe Biden’s US administration has warned it is watching to ensure any moves by Boris Johnson’s government do not imperil the Northern Ireland peace process.
Under the protocol agreed by Johnson in 2019, all goods shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must follow the EU’s rules for customs and agrifood products, resulting in checks on the Irish Sea. The Brexit deal sought to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Lord David Frost, Cabinet Office minister, has described the arrangements on the Irish Sea trade border as “unsustainable”, telling MPs this week it was necessary to “hugely reduce or eliminate barriers” created by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, Frost said the UK government had tried to operate the protocol in “good faith”, but added that a new approach was needed. “Put simply, we cannot go on as we are,” he told peers.
Frost said a government command paper outlined a “new balance” under which goods would be able to circulate more freely within the UK customs territory, as well as ensuring that full processes are applied to products destined for the EU.
“The difficulties we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU which reflects our strong common interests and values,” he added.
“Instead of that relationship, we are seeing one which is punctuated with legal challenges and characterised by disagreement and mistrust. We do not want that pattern to be set.”
Britain wants Brussels to agree to a dual-standards regime that would allow goods that conform to UK rules to circulate freely in Northern Ireland alongside EU-compliant products, so long as they are labelled as only for use in the region, according to people with knowledge of the proposals.
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The UK proposals also include an “honesty box” approach, where companies that say their goods are destined only for sale and use in Northern Ireland should be exempted from checks on the Irish Sea border.
Another strand of the proposals would seek to remove any role for the European Commission or the European Court of Justice in the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The government paper sets up a clash between the UK and Brussels when a series of “grace periods” — waivers on checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland including chilled meat — expire at the end of September.
Ireland’s European affairs minister Thomas Byrne told the BBC: “We’re going to listen carefully to what the British government have to say.
“We’re willing to discuss any creative solutions within the confines of the protocol but we have to recognise as well that Britain decided itself to leave the single market of the European Union, to apply trade rules, to apply red tape to its goods that are leaving Britain, to goods that are coming into Britain.”
Marks and Spencer chair Archie Norman warned on Monday the company was already cutting Christmas products in Northern Ireland because of concerns about post-Brexit checks.
He told the BBC that the checks would mean higher prices and less choice, and urged a “common sense approach to enforcement”.
In a letter to Frost, Norman said the current customs arrangements were “totally unsuited and were never designed for a modern fresh food supply chain between closely intertwined trading partners”.