The European Commission has said it “will not agree to a renegotiation” of the Northern Ireland Protocol after the UK government demanded that “significant changes” be made.
EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said the bloc are “ready to continue to seek creative solutions within the framework of the protocol” but will not reopen negotiations of the entire mechanism.
His comments came as Brexit minister Lord Frost said that the UK and the EU “cannot go on as we are” with the current Northern Ireland Protocol arrangements.
Empty shelves at a Marks & Spencer’s store in Belfast
Lord Frost unveiled proposals from the UK government that he said will bring a “new balance” to the protocol, as the UK looks to overhaul post-Brexit trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to ensure the smooth movement of goods.
The UK’s Brexit minister said it will ensure “goods circulate much more freely within the UK customs territory while ensuring that full processes are applied to goods destined for the EU”.
According to the government’s command paper, the plan includes:
- Returning to a normal treaty framework similar to all other international agreements
- Exploring “exceptional arrangements” around data sharing and cooperation
- Introducing penalties to deter people looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland
- Streamlining trade and avoiding controls at Northern Ireland ports and airports
- Agreeing a standstill period including the suspension of all legal action by the EU and the operation of grace periods to allow continued trade of goods such as chilled meats including sausages
- Ensuring that the relationship between the UK and the EU is not ultimately policed by EU institutions including the European Court of Justice
The Northern Ireland Protocol helps prevent the need for checks on Ireland’s internal border.
Speaking on Wednesday, Lord Frost admitted that the burdens imposed by the mechanism “have been a source of considerable and ongoing disruption to lives and livelihoods”.
However, the Brexit minister stopped short of entirely ripping up the document or calling for the Article 16 provision – which enables either the UK or the EU to suspend part of the arrangements in extreme circumstances – to be triggered.
Lord Frost said “it is clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16” but that “it is not the right moment to do so”.
Analysis, Adam Parsons, Europe correspondent
The European Union response to Lord Frost’s speech was a collective roll of the eyes followed by a shrug of the shoulders. Among the diplomats I’ve spoken to here, there wasn’t one person with any enthusiasm for reopening negotiations.
Why? Well primarily because of the feeling in Brussels that negotiations were held over the course of years and that it’s down to both sides to enact what was agreed.
“We expect the UK to implement what it has negotiated, signed and ratified,” one senior figure told me. “No ifs, no buts and no excuses.
Secondly, there is the simple fact that the changes now demanded are seen as unacceptable.
The idea of removing the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice might play well with some British voters, but to EU lawmakers it would be an outrageous concession.
Changing the protocol, they believe, could mean having to rewrite, and even renegotiate, parts of the withdrawal agreement.
There is irritation that Westminster politicians are seen as lecturing their Brussels counterparts over the Good Friday Agreement, even though Ireland is an EU member.
And finally, there is a real lack of trust in the British government. “We have grown wary of the Tory party being the perpetrator and victim of its own actions,” said one EU diplomat.
The option of a “standstill”, for example, is seen as simply an effort to buy time, with no real long-term plan.
He added: “Instead, we see an opportunity to proceed differently, to find a new path, to seek to agree with the EU through negotiations a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland to the benefit of all.”
And Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis urged the EU to carefully consider the UK government’s renewed proposals.
Making a statement simultaneously in the House of Commons, Mr Lewis said: “It’s now the time to work to establish a new balance, which both the UK and EU can invest in, to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU.
“We are today setting out an approach that we believe can do just that.
“We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and work with us to seize this opportunity and put our relations on a better footing. We stand ready to deliver the brighter future that is within reach.”
But the EU said renegotiation is not on the table.
“We take note of the statement made by Lord Frost today,” Mr Sefcovic said.
“We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today. We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol.”
Loyalists take part in an anti-Protocol rally in Portadown, Co Armagh
Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs Thomas Bryne agreed, adding: “We don’t want to renegotiate the protocol, it’s there. But within the protocol there are creative ways of doing things.”
And SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood accused the government of “shamelessly ignoring” its international treaty obligations.
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh accused the government of “more political brinkmanship”.
Analysis, David Blevins, Ireland correspondent
On a visit to Belfast in 2019, Boris Johnson said there was “no question” of checks on goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
But he had already agreed to checks a month earlier when he and his then Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar were negotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Fast forward 18 months and the UK government is effectively admitting that the checks were required by taking unilateral action to abandon most of them.
If there is no effective Irish Sea border, how will the EU protect its Single Market without resurrecting the contentious prospect of a land border?
They said it would be easy to avoid a hard border but five years after the UK voted for Brexit, there is still no solution.
The longer the EU and UK lock horns over Northern Ireland, the more destabilising it is for relationships at the heart of the peace process.
But others were more positive about the UK government’s announcement, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson describing it as a “significant step”, adding that a “proper renegotiation” of the protocol is needed.
“The prime minister must continue at pace to remove the Irish Sea Border, which is fracturing the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom,” Sir Jeffrey told the Commons.
‘We don’t want to renegotiate the NI Protocol’
Angela McGowan, director of CBI Northern Ireland Director, said “businesses are exasperated that the protocol continues to dominate the headlines with no end in sight”.
She added that “solutions need to be agreed urgently to unlock investment and give Northern Ireland’s businesses and households the certainty they need and deserve”.