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The government will tomorrow make a highly-anticipated statement on its plan for dealing with the Northern Ireland Protocol, with EU sources expecting the UK to propose wholesale changes to how the treaty is implemented.
Brussels is bracing itself for a command paper that will set out how the UK government believes checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland can be significantly reduced.
“It probably won’t make us happy,” quipped one EU official ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, reflecting a wider mood in Brussels that the government is seeking to abandon commitments it signed up to last year.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost are expected to make statements to the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively after Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow afternoon.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by the UK and EU as part of Brexit talks last year, was designed to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. However, it led to an economic border in the Irish Sea, by virtue of Northern Ireland sticking to EU trading rules.
The government argues the EU is taking an overly-legalistic approach to the new arrangements that is causing undue disruption to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Frost has in recent weeks described the treaty as unsustainable in its current form amid anger in unionist communities over how it is affected the province’s relationship with the rest of the UK.
However, Brussels says the new red tape impacting trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is exactly what the government signed up to when the Brexit deal was agreed last year.
The EU has told the UK aligning with its food safety rules would eliminate 80% of checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. The government has so far been steadfast in rejecting this proposal, however, arguing it would infringe on the UK’s sovereignty.
The government is tight-lipped about what exactly the command paper, which is expected to be around twenty pages in length, will contain. It wants the EU to accept a system of equivalance whereby both sides agree to recognise each other’s standards without the need for alignment.
A government source said the command paper was a “significant piece of work” and would present “new thinking” on how to reduce friction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The UK has previously called for what’s known as a trusted trader scheme that would allow accredited supermarkets to trade freely across the Irish Sea, provided that they share supply chain information with the EU.
The plan is likely to prompt fresh EU accusations that the UK is seeking to fundamentally rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol, rather than working towards implementing it.There is also fear in Brussels that the UK will decide to plough on with plan unilaterally even if the EU is strongly opposed to it.
Following a Specialised Committee meeting of UK and EU officials on Tuesday, the European Commission urged the government to “avoid unnecessarily straining relations through unilateral action”.
The two sides are under pressure to find solutions for the Northern Ireland Protocol this summer before a huge wave of new paperwork hits British businesses sending goods to buyers in the province.
Last month the two sides agreed to extend a grace period covering the trade of chilled meats until the end of September, avoiding a ban on sausages, pies and other items entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
However, while the so-called “sausage war” attracted plenty of media attention, business groups in the province say the impact of a ban on chilled meats pales in comparison to the disruption that awaits in October, when Export Health Certificates are set to be introduced for a wide range of food crossing the Irish Sea.
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