EU and UK to ease protocol rules on guide dogs, plant declarations, animal tags
Loyalists protesting against the Northern Ireland Protocol outside Belfast City Hall last weekend. Photograph: Alan Lewis/Photopress
The European Union is to stretch its rules to lessen some red tape required for moving livestock and plants and ease the movement of guide dogs between Britain and Northern Ireland, The Irish Times understands.
The workarounds were identified in talks with Britain over recent weeks in which there has been an “improved atmosphere”, an EU official said, as the two sides seek solutions that could calm tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol.
However, Brussels considers the tweaks are close to the limit of the flexibility that is available under the hard interpretation of Brexit pursued by Boris Johnson’s government, and that alignment on rules would be required to end Irish Sea checks.
“The European Union has shown its legislation does allow for certain flexibility, and where there is flexibility we are willing to stretch as far as is possible within the legislation,” an EU official said. “Some of the requests of the UK would stretch that flexibility beyond breaking point.”
The arrangements will allow for guide dogs to move from Britain to Northern Ireland without requirements such as animal health certificates that are required for pets post-Brexit.
The Northern Ireland protocol, part of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, ensured no checks would be imposed for goods crossing the Irish Border post-Brexit, but it has angered Unionists because it involves checks between Northern Ireland and Britain.
On livestock, a solution has been found that will mean tags on the ears of animals will not have to be repeatedly changed when they are moved between Britain and Northern Ireland. Declarations that are required to move certain plants into the North from Britain will be accelerated.
But the EU has told British officials that to remove the need for checks outright, Britain must align with the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules of the single market – measures designed to protect human, plant and animal health.
“There’s a limit to what we can achieve in this kind of a piecemeal approach, and if the intention is really to reduce the extent of the customs checks then you need to move to a more structural solution,” the EU official said.
“While we can find flexibility to solve some of the problems, we won’t be able to solve all of the problems. But we would be able to solve all of the problems if they agreed to align on SPS.”
Flexibility to change SPS rules is key to British ambitions to sign new international trade deals. The EU has therefore proposed an agreement to keep standards in line and therefore end Irish Sea checks, until such a trade deal is agreed and implemented. This could be a long time as such trade accords take years to complete.
But British sources strongly rejected the idea of temporary alignment as politically impossible, as it would mean following EU rules as they evolved and would be contrary to the central ambition of Brexit of having the freedom to diverge.
Instead, London has suggested that it could have arrangements resembling a deal the EU currently has with New Zealand, which Britain argues allows for standards to be recognised as equivalent, while remaining different.
The EU argues that this would not be a “silver bullet”, because the goods involved are very limited and the trade relationship with the UK is much more intense and involves many more varied goods that that with New Zealand.
The EU-UK post-Brexit trade deal has now formally come into force, and talks are ongoing on fishing allowances with meetings of the joint co-operation committees the agreement sets out expected to take place by the summer.