Question Time audience member says EU 'used' Northern Ireland
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The European Commission has told UK negotiators the bloc will drop demands for controls of food crossing the Irish Sea if Downing Street follows all EU plant, animal health, environment and food safety rules. Eurocrats have also claimed pets would be able to travel freely to Northern Ireland using the pet passport scheme and the ban on British soil being shipped to the region would be lifted. Officials in Brussels are hoping this offer will unlock the row over the 2019 Brexit divorce deal’s protocol to avoid a hard border.
To keep the Irish border open, Northern Ireland effectively remains part of the EU’s single market and some checks are now made on some products arriving from the rest of the UK.
The arrangements have been partially blamed for a recent uptick in violent disruptions in Loyalist communities in the area.
Intensive negotiations are currently underway to de-escalate the tensions, but Whitehall officials fear the bloc underestimates Unionist anger over customs controls between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Brussels believes it can eliminate the vast majority of checks if Britain signs up to “dynamic alignment” of the bloc’s food safety rules.
British officials say this is simply not an option for the Government, citing Lord Frost’s hardline opposition to anything that would allow eurocrats to meddle in the affairs of a sovereign nation.
But the EU believes the pact could be dressed up under a new name – such as “New Zealand plus” – that would make checks on food shipments “proportionate to risks identified and not more trade-restrictive than necessary”.
Insiders say a deal is tricky because Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who is the top eurocrat responsible for Brexit, is being hamstrung by hardliners around the bloc.
Anti-Brexit EU diplomats and officials are resisting offering Brexit minister Lord Frost a breakthrough because they deplored his tough negotiating strategy during last year’s wrangling over a UK-EU trade pact.
A UK diplomatic source told the Times: “You get the impression that Sefcovic is limited in what he can offer.
“He is very reasonable but there are others in the commission who are finding it harder to adapt to the new relationship with the UK.”
One potential concession by the EU would be to rebadge the concept of dynamic alignment in a bid to make it palatable for the UK Government.
In recent talks, the Commission claimed it would do away with the need for trade checks of food crossing between Britain and Northern Ireland.
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A British source said: “The EU has been saying you don’t have to call it dynamic alignment, as long as you dynamically align we can call it something else.
“But that is just not politically acceptable.”
Sources close to the talks say that the UK could accept an “equivalence” scheme that allows Brussels to recognise Britain’s exceptionally high food safety rules.
But the EU was said to be sticking to a “philosophical” position based on following the rules to the letter of the law.
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Britain is pushing for a more “pragmatic” approach based on the real risks to animal or plant health to the bloc’s single market.
Prime Minister Mr Johnson was previously open to great alignment with EU animal and plant health rules but has since U-turned over fears Brussels could stifle future innovation.
His change of opinion came after witnessing the EU’s dithering and delays on coronavirus vaccines.
A UK Government spokesman said British negotiators are pushing the EU to reconsider its approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He said: “The EU has a number of SPS and veterinary agreements with third countries based on equivalence, rather than dynamic alignment.
“We continue to be open to an arrangement based on equivalence, but we are clear that the UK cannot accept a veterinary agreement that is based on dynamic alignment with EU rules in perpetuity.
“Our focus continues to be on supporting businesses adjust to the new trading arrangements. This includes increasing vet capacity to certify exports, making available millions of pounds to help small businesses though our SME Brexit Support Fund and regularly engaging with industry, including through the Brexit Business Task Force, to understand any challenges they face.”
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