October 18. 2021. 5:30

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Majority of checks on goods can go in bid to ease working of protocol, says Sefcovic

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic addresses a press conference on the Northern Ireland protocol in Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

Most checks on goods from Britain destined for Northern Irish supermarket shelves would be dropped and half of customs formalities slashed under new proposals unveiled by the European Commission.

Drawn up in a bid to ease the implementation of the North’s post-Brexit arrangements and settle the issue in the face of calls from the British government for change, the proposals were based on discussions with civic and business stakeholders about what could be improved.

“We have completely turned our rules upside down and inside out,” to find solutions, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said as he unveiled four papers laying the groundwork for discussions with London.

“If I’m talking about 80 per cent reduction in checks, about half of the customs formalities to be reduced, about express lanes, about all really bespoke solutions, I think that it’s quite obvious that we are really doing our our utmost. And I hope that this will be reciprocated by our UK partners.”

The proposals include a change to EU law to allow medicines to continue to be distributed from British hubs, special exceptions to allow fresh meat goods deemed to be important to ‘national identity’, and formal structures to involve Northern Irish stakeholders and authorities in overseeing the arrangements.

Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost had warned in a speech on the eve of the launch that his government could not accept any proposals that retained the European Court of Justice’s oversight of the EU regulations that apply to Northern Ireland.

Red line issue

This is a red line issue for Brussels as it underpins the EU’s legal order, and Sefcovic revealed when asked at a press conference that the ECJ had only been first raised by Britain as a problem this July, long after the Protocol had been agreed and entered into force.

UK sources insisted that the ECJ was an intrinsic part of the problem with the Protocol, which they describe as too discredited among the unionist community to be salvageable.

“Significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the Protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree a durable settlement which commands support in Northern Ireland,” a UK government spokeswoman said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin welcomed the proposals as a “serious response to the challenges and concerns that have arisen” while foreign minister Simon Coveney described them as “far-reaching proposals that comprehensively address the practical, genuine issues that matter most” to the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Martin said the proposals will “pave the way for a very serious engagement” and represent “a very significant opportunity”.

Mr Martin said Mr Sefcovic had briefed him ahead of the publication of the proposals.

“He has come back with a very comprehensive set of proposals. I now believe that the United Kingdom Government should engage with the European Union Commission on this package of proposals and should work jointly with the European Union to arrive at a joint solution in relation to this issue.”

Mr Martin said the proposals demanded an equivocal response from the UK which should commence now.

‘Serious piece of work’

The Taoiseach described the proposals as “a very serious piece of work.”

“I think it paves the way for a very serious engagement. These proposals cover animal and food, the SPS area, medicines and customs and also then imaginative proposals around involvement of stakeholders in Northern Ireland on an ongoing basis on these particular issues.”

Mr Martin asked “all parties to give them serious consideration and engage in a process that can lead to a positive outcome.”

There was also significant movement on customs, he said.

Mr Martin said it was a significant opportunity to resolve the issues at hand and could “lead to restoration of political stability, while also facilitating continued access of Northern Ireland business, industry and jobs”.

“This demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the European Commission is in solution mode,” he said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the ideas “go further than many expected”, while UUP Leader Doug Beattie said the European Union “has moved significantly, something many told us was not possible.”