The UK has called on the European Union to adopt a “standstill period” in relation to Northern Ireland Protocol rules in the wake of further warnings from retailers about the likelihood of empty shelves in the province’s supermarkets.
However, the EU has indicated it is not willing to renegotiate rules that have already been signed off.
In a speech to Parliament yesterday (21 July), the UK’s Brexit minister Lord David Frost said: “We cannot go on as we are.” He produced a paper calling for “significant change” including a “standstill period” to maintain current grace periods and freeze legal action by the Commission.
He said: “The Protocol has failed to deliver on some of its core objectives and we cannot ignore the political, societal, and economic difficulties this continues to create in Northern Ireland.
“That is why we need a new approach based on negotiation and the finding of a new and enduring consensus. There is a real opportunity to move forward in a way that protects the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and put UK-EU relations on a stable footing.
“We urge the EU to grasp this opportunity, take full account of the issues at stake, and help deliver the brighter future that is within reach.”
However, in a statement responding to the request, European Commission vice president Maroš Šefcovic said the Protocol was a joint solution found with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Lord Frost, and that it had been ratified by the UK Parliament.
“Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance,” he said.
Although the UK is seeking changes to the agreement overseeing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, pre-speech predictions that Frost would threaten to activate article 16 of the Protocol – which allows for emergency suspension – proved to be inaccurate.
Since Brexit – the UK’s departure from the EU at the start of this year – how Northern Ireland trades with the British mainland has been governed by the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is a dispensation that keeps the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic open but does not allow goods to cross south into the EU member state without checks.
The Protocol means there are some controls on goods moving across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
This has already resulted in increased paperwork and border checks for UK retailers and food manufacturers supplying Northern Ireland outlets but tougher rules will be introduced after a ‘grace period’ ends in October and chilled meat products such as sausages, minced beef and pies would be banned from export to the province from the UK mainland.
Earlier this week, chief executives of six of the UK’s largest food retailers said they may have to switch supply chains away from Great Britain to the EU if plans for Northern Ireland trade are not reassessed.
And yesterday, Archie Norman, the chairman of Marks & Spencer, said full checks risk becoming “incendiary” in Northern Ireland when prices rise and favourite products fail to get through.
It is against this backdrop that Frost, on behalf of the UK government, is attempting to renegotiate the previously agreed Protocol, seeking significant amendments to the original deal.
In effect, the UK wants the Protocol to be rewritten to get concessions not secured in the original negotiations.
But EU negotiator Šefcovic suggested there is little likelihood of that happening. He said: “We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the Protocol.”