MEPs set to endorse Brexit trade deal despite Northern Ireland tension

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The European Parliament’s ratification of the EU’s trade deal with the UK is set to move a step closer on Thursday with lawmakers poised to endorse the agreement, despite tensions over new trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. 

European Parliament committees are to vote on the UK-EU deal, which has been in force since January despite only being formally ratified by the British side. MEPs said that the expected endorsement was an important step for relations ahead of a dinner on Thursday evening between EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK opposite number David Frost.

MEPs put the ratification process on ice earlier this year in protest at unilateral British moves that the EU said violated the two sides’ Northern Ireland protocol. Sefcovic and Frost will discuss ongoing work to dial down tensions and forge consensus on how to implement the system of trading rules intended to prevent a hard border in Ireland.

Brussels and London have both emphasised the need to apply the protocol, part of the UK’s 2019 Brexit treaty, in a way that minimises the risk of further stoking sectarian tensions that boiled over into eight consecutive nights of rioting in Belfast this month. 

Brussels said this week that it is ready “to find swift pragmatic solutions within the framework of the protocol”, while UK Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has called for a “fluid and flexible” approach to applying the trading arrangements. 

While the 2019 divorce treaty containing the protocol and the new EU-UK trade deal agreed last year are legally separate, MEPs have politically linked the two, making the UK’s commitment to implementing the Northern Ireland arrangements a precondition for ratification. 

The assembly’s leadership decided this week to wait until after Frost’s meeting with Sefcovic to decide on setting a date for a final ratification vote, but to allow the committee stage to go ahead. 

It is widely expected that the final vote will take place this month, as the assembly has now completed detailed scrutiny of the 1,246 page text, and failure to vote it through would force the EU to ask the UK for a further extension of provisional application of the deal, which provides for tariff-free, quota-free trade on most goods. 

Christophe Hansen, the European Parliament trade committee’s lead MEP on Brexit, said on Thursday that ratification would preserve real benefits won by the EU during last year’s negotiations. 

“It will safeguard the unprecedented level playing field provisions with a third country that were won in the negotiations at great effort, while also increasing legal security for all those who are directly affected by Brexit — people and businesses,” he said.

Sefcovic and Frost will review progress from intensive “technical” talks between EU and UK officials in recent days on Northern Ireland trade issues, ranging from food safety checks to the construction of border inspection posts and trade in medicines and steel.

Brussels still has legal action under way against the UK for its decision earlier this year to unilaterally extend grace periods for some of the protocols’ requirements for ensuring food safety. Britain and the EU agreed this week that London would have until mid-May to respond to the EU’s objections.

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