The EU has said it is confident that a further delay can be agreed to looming restrictions on shipments of meat products across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland, as Brussels vowed to consider “bold steps” to address some of the problems caused by Brexit in the region.
Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner in charge of relations with the UK, said he believed a three-month extension could be granted to a grace period before restrictions come into force on exports of chilled meat products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Addressing members of the Stormont legislative assembly in Belfast, Sefcovic said the EU wanted to help address barriers to access to medicines in Northern Ireland, signalling the European Commission could introduce legislation to address the matter if necessary.
His words come as the two sides seek to de-escalate tensions that have emerged because of the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol to the EU-UK withdrawal agreement. Earlier this month, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, warned at a G7 summit that he would not hesitate to suspend parts of the Brexit deal unless the EU stopped dealing with the issue in a “theologically draconian” way.
But the two sides have been working to find fixes for some of the key irritants. The Northern Ireland protocol avoids the return of a north-south trade border in Ireland, but creates new checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland to ensure they do not just pass through the region and into the EU single market.
Speaking on Monday, Sefcovic insisted that the EU was demonstrating “pragmatism” and that parties needed to do whatever was necessary to “de-dramatise” the rhetoric over the protocol. He was “confident” that a solution could be found in the next 48 hours that would allow an extension to the chilled meats deadline.
The EU was also working intensely on other issues, including “measures to continue the supply of medicine to Northern Ireland”, he said. The protocol has created barriers in Northern Ireland to selling medicines made in Great Britain unless they also have the necessary EU regulatory approvals and licensing arrangements.
“I know it’s very sensitive and it’s also for me extremely important that we will sort out this very important issue,” Sefcovic added. “We are willing to consider taking bold steps if the UK government demonstrates a clear and concrete commitment to implementing the protocol in full.”
The EU has repeatedly complained that the UK has yet to meet all its commitments under the protocol.
Sefcovic added that finding solutions on medicine supplies would not be easy, because it could require legislative change, but he added: “We want to ensure that citizens in NI have full access to all the medicines they need and we are ready to move ahead fast.”
British officials also said they were “cautiously optimistic” a deal could be struck on chilled meats before Wednesday’s deadline and welcomed Sefcovic’s constructive tone.
They said the immediate focus was on extending the grace period for the trade in sausages, minced beef and other chilled meat products, but that Sefcovic’s comments on medicines were also welcome.
“There are ongoing discussions with Brussels at a technical level,” said an ally of Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary. “There’s a mood of cautious optimism — there’s some movement in the right direction.”
Sefcovic added that he ultimately wanted to ensure checks on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland were reduced “to (the) absolute minimum possible”.
He added: “Ultimately, our work is about making sure that peace and stability in NI are protected at the same time preserving the integrity of the EU single market . . . while also having as little impact as possible on daily lives of citizens in NI.”
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