Port staff in Northern Ireland charged with implementing contentious new post-Brexit customs arrangements will return to work on Wednesday — a week after they were temporarily withdrawn because of security fears.
The move comes 24 hours before the UK and the EU are due to hold a crunch meeting in London to thrash out differences over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, with the UK government demanding an “urgent reset” to the agreement which creates a trade border down the Irish Sea.
Staff conducting port checks were temporarily withdrawn on February 2 after local reports of sectarian threats against workers implementing the new trade border, which has enraged some parts of the Northern Irish unionist community because it divides the UK’s internal market.
However, the region’s agriculture department said the decision to begin a phased restart of physical inspections at ports had been taken following a “full threat assessment” by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The protocol — the part of Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal with the EU that avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland — remains a source of deep tension in Northern Ireland and between London and Brussels, with the British government and the European Commission still far apart on how the deal should be implemented.
Speaking to peers on the House of Lords’ EU committee, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the issues in the EU-UK trade deal were akin to an air journey and would eventually be resolved.
“When an aeroplane takes off, you sometimes get an increased level of turbulence,” he said. “Eventually the crew tell you to take your seats belts off, and enjoy a gin and tonic and peanuts. We’re not at the gin and tonic and peanuts stage yet.”
Under the terms of the protocol all goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must follow EU customs rules, including expensive and time-consuming export health certificates (EHCs) as well as completing customs import formalities.
The UK government demanded a significant shift in the implementation of the protocol in a letter to Brussels last week, asking that grace periods to enable businesses to adapt be extended until January 2023.
However, senior EU diplomats said that Maros Sefcovic, the commission vice-president in charge of overseeing the protocol’s implementation, can expect to be given only limited room for manoeuvre at a meeting with EU ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday morning.
They warned that any EU offer to ease the burdens created by the protocol was likely to fall far short of UK demands issued by Gove.
The UK demands follow a decision by the commission to temporarily suspend part of the protocol to control the export of Covid-19 vaccines. The move was swiftly corrected but provoked anger in London, Dublin and Northern Ireland.
A senior EU diplomat with knowledge of discussions in Brussels said EU member states had shown no appetite for fundamental changes to the deal. “Practical issues can be solved. Extensions can be discussed but need to be limited in nature and predicated on the UK government making serious attempts at making the protocol work instead of obfuscating the reality of Brexit,” the diplomat said.
The list of UK requests includes relaxing and then permanently adapting EU rules on importing British seeds and plants for gardens; reducing paperwork to take dogs into the region; and the import of medicines.
EU officials said the UK demands were “too much, too soon”, warning that the British government was in danger of politicising the protocol. However, UK officials have warned that the EU was showing a “lack of desire to make the protocol work”, which “did not bode well” for the future of the deal.
One senior British government insider said: “There is a worry that the EU doesn’t understand the seriousness of what happened 12 days ago and they think it can be swept under the rug and that we are somehow instrumentalising this — that is categorically not the case.”