Brexit chief extends olive branch in effort to bring UK back to negotiating table in long-running dispute
The EU has initiated a fresh attempt to end the Northern Ireland Brexit dispute with the UK with a proposal to reduce checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea to a near “invisible manner” involving just “a couple of lorries” a day.
Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said physical checks would be made only “when there is a reasonable suspicion of illegal trade smuggling, illegal drugs, dangerous toys or poisoned food”.
The move was described by the Irish prime minister, Micheál Martin, as evidence of “further solutions” and “flexibility” in Brussels.
“I spoke with the British PM late last week. It was a preliminary discussion. We will meet again on these issues,” he said.
Hopes of talks being renewed after a nine-month gap were fuelled by the arrival last Tuesday of the new UK prime minister, Liz Truss. But any diplomacy beyond the prime ministers speaking by phone was paused following the death of the Queen last Thursday and is unlikely to resume before the 10-day period of mourning is over.
Šefčovič, told the Financial Times the proposals would mean there was almost no difference between the UK’s demand for “no checks” and the EU’s offer of “minimum checks, done in an invisible manner”.
Speaking to reporters in Ireland on Monday, Martin said: “I do believe genuinely there’s a view across that we should do everything we can to resolve this issue.”
He added that the “European Union and the UK really should sort this out so that we can focus on the bigger issues geopolitically that are facing the European Union and UK who are good partners on these more fundamental issues”.
He said what Šefčovič, was demonstrating was “his flexibility, his desire to be solution-driven and what you’re witnessing this morning is further solutions, proposed ideas around resolving the protocol issue”.
In an echo of alternative arrangements once mooted by the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, Šefčovič said the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be made invisible if the EU had real-time access to data on goods entering the country to enable officials to stop only suspicious vehicles.
UK sources have this year complained that they have built a system to give access to such data to the EU but Brussels has yet to use it. They have also complained that half a dozen or more customs officials were operating in Belfast with little to do, proving the lack of rogue activity.
Šefčovič’s comments will be seen as a further olive branch to the UK, which has threatened to unilaterally scrap all checks as a way of ending the dispute.
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Normal political business is in abeyance during the period of mourning and the UK is not commenting on the matter.
The EU launched seven legal actions against the UK for abandoning some of the checks mandated in the protocol, with a deadline of Thursday 15 September for a formal response.
It had been suggested the UK would use this deadline to trigger article 16 to scrap all barriers, including the bar on the sale of trees, potato seeds and other farm produce from Great Britain in Northern Ireland.
But this is now unlikely as government business has been reduced because of the death of the Queen.
As of Monday, the UK had not requested a further delay to the deadline, and the legal and political responses to the Brexit dispute have been decoupled for the moment.