The European Union will offer a new package of concessions to the U.K. that would ease trade barriers in Northern Ireland, as the two sides prepare for a new round of contentious Brexit negotiations.
Later Wednesday, Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, will offer to cut as much as 50% of the customs checks in Northern Ireland and up to 80% of the sanitary checks on food imports, according to officials familiar with the proposal. Procedures for medicines would remain largely unchanged, with U.K. packaging and labeling.
A high-level EU delegation will head to London on Thursday, with contacts also being made with senior figures in Northern Ireland, said one of the officials, who asked not to be identified because the preparations are private.
As part of Brexit, Britain signed up to the Northern Ireland protocol, which kept the province in the EU’s single market—unlike the rest of the U.K. This allowed the U.K. to shed EU regulations without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.
U.K. Brexit Minister David Frost said that the protocol isn’t working as intended and on Tuesday offered a new “forward-looking” Northern Ireland protocol, aimed at replacing the existing version. The EU has been adamant that it will not renegotiate the hard-fought deal, which is a binding international treaty.
“For the EU now to say that the protocol—drawn up in extreme haste in a time of great uncertainty—can never be improved upon, when it is so self-evidently causing such significant problems, would be a historic misjudgement,” Frost said in a speech in Lisbon.
Frost said the U.K. is prepared to trigger Article 16—a clause in the protocol that allows for unilateral safeguard measures if “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” result from its implementation. The EU has said it’s prepared to respond with legal and retaliatory trade measures.
Sefcovic’s proposals are intended as a starting point for talks with the U.K. government, not a take-it-or-leave-it offer, one official said. But the bloc feels this offer is already pushing the boundaries of EU law and that it can’t go much further.
Yet the EU proposal will fall well short of what Frost is demanding, setting up a prolonged fight that could ignite damaging tit-for-tat economic retaliation and reopen the wounds from the painful negotiation over the U.K.’s exit from the EU.
Frost left room for compromise on Tuesday. “There are several stages in this process where everybody can look carefully at it and decide to pull back from the brink,” he said in remarks after his speech.
The European Commission has said previously that the U.K. hasn’t done enough to demonstrate it intends to honor its obligations under the protocol. While European officials have been given access to the computer systems which register goods entering Northern Ireland, the U.K. hasn’t made progress on building the physical infrastructure needed for the border checks.
Frost said the U.K. is never going to adopt the same level of border controls as the EU, because the government doesn’t believe the risks require them. He also rejected the role of the European Court of Justice in having authority over trade between Britain and Northern Ireland
“It is not just about the court. It is about the system of which the court is the apex—the system which means the EU can make laws which apply in Northern Ireland without any kind of democratic scrutiny or discussion,” he said. “Even now, as the EU considers possible solutions, there is an air of it saying “we have decided what’s best for you, and will now implement it.”