Brexit breakthrough: what is back on the negotiating table?

Brussels offers better-than-expected proposals for the Northern Ireland Protocol

Maros Sefcovic
Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic, vice-president of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations
(Image credit: Stephanie Lecocq/AFP/Getty Images)

The UK government is digesting an offer from the European Commission to scrap 80% of spot checks on foods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain.

The proposal, announced by the EU’s Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic yesterday, is “a significant concession” from Brussels “to ease post-Brexit border problems”, said The Guardian.

The offer came a day after Sefcovic’s UK counterpart David Frost demanded a total end to the Northern Ireland Protocol, set up after Brexit to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

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The protocol has effectively created a trade border in the Irish Sea –triggering months of disagreement between the UK and EU over border checks that Frost has described as “disruptive” and “damaging” for the nation.

Under the EU proposals, “goods destined for Northern Ireland only could go in an ‘express lane’ when arriving in the province from Britain”, explained The Telegraph’s Europe editor James Crisp. And customs paperwork would be cut by around 50%.

In return, “Brussels wants real-time access to UK trade databases in order to police which products cross into the Republic of Ireland, the EU’s external border”.

UK officials acknowledged that the proposals went further than expected, said the Financial Times. “But they fall short of Frost’s benchmark that for businesses in Great Britain, trading with Belfast should be as easy as commerce with Birmingham”.

The bloc also “refused to engage” on the UK’s demand for an end to the European Court of Justice’s role in oversight of the protocol. Frost argued that the court’s involvement created a “false sense of separation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as trade arrangements operated within one part of the United Kingdom are ultimately overseen outside of it”.

Brussels insisted that if Northern Ireland follows EU rules for goods, it must accept the writ of the ECJ.

Despite that sticking point, Frost has vowed to work “very hard” to agree a deal, in a sign that the threat of unilaterally suspending parts of protocol “had been put on ice for now”, said The Telegraph’s Crisp.

“There is growing expectation that a fix can be found to keep EU judges at arms length in Northern Ireland,” he added.

The Guardian had a different take, reporting that Brussels officials “were ‘preparing for the worst’ amid signs Boris Johnson is set to reject the terms of the deal”. The chances of a compromise “appeared low”, said the paper.

Labour’s shadow minister for Task Force Europe, Jenny Chapman, said concerns are growing that the outcome will be “a mid-November showdown, with the UK invoking Article 16 and unilaterally ripping up the agreement” that Frost and Johnson negotiated back in 2019.

While this approach would “no doubt appeal to many on the government’s back benches”, wrote Chapman in an article for The Independent, “it would be damaging, counterproductive, and cause further instability”.

She warned of an “inevitable trade war with our biggest trade partners”, at a time when the country is already facing “a growing winter crisis as well as tensions in Northern Ireland”.

DUP MP Ian Paisley suggested last night that abandoning the protocol had been the plan along. “Boris Johnson did tell me personally... after agreeing to the protocol, he would sign up to changing that protocol and indeed tearing it up,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

The prime minister’s former top aide made similar claims in an online tirade yesterday. Dominic Cummings, who “has been a vocal critic of his former boss” since leaving Downing Street acrimoniously last year, “hurled grenades at Johnson in a series of late-night tweets”, said Politico’s Emilio Casalicchio.

The UK government “wriggled through with the best option we could” and then planned to “ditch bits we didn't like” after “whacking” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 general election, claimed Cummings.

If true, “the PM was dead right to do so – given the hideous twin risks in 2019 of a ­Corbyn government and Remainers then overturning the Leave vote”, said The Sun in an editorial.

“Brexit is done,” the paper proclaimed, and the protocol “is being radically improved, as he hoped”.

The Times argued that Johnson was “given a mandate to get Brexit done, not to renege on international agreements voluntarily entered into”.

Now, said the paper, it is time to “instruct Lord Frost to get down to business, secure a workable compromise and finally deliver his promise”.

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