The Irish Foreign Minister has said that he hopes new proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol can take the EU and the UK beyond the “rancour” of the past week.
Simon Coveney was speaking as European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic prepares to unveil a series of measures on Wednesday evening aimed at addressing issues around customs paperwork and the movement of agri-food goods and medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mr Sefcovic, who has promised the proposals will be “very far reaching”, has also pledged to offer more of a consultative role for politicians and civic society in Northern Ireland on how the contentious trading arrangements operate.
Mr Coveney told RTE radio: “I think this is a major intervention by the European Commission. It is a very genuine and honest effort to try to resolve and to provide answers for the concerns that many people in Northern Ireland have expressed.”
He said that he had spoken to Mr Sefcovic’s team on Wednesday morning and that he believed the proposals would address “practical and real problems”.
The EU plan is expected to significantly reduce the volume of paperwork and checks required under the protocol on goods being shipped into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Issues around looming bans on the import of some GB products into Northern Ireland, such as chilled meats, are also set to be addressed in the proposals.
Mr Coveney said that the EU would bring a proposal on the movement of medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“There will be four different papers published this evening. The first will be on medicines, where the EU wants to make it crystal clear there will be no barriers to medicines coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain in terms of shortages of medicines,” he said.
“The EU is willing to effectively change EU law to solve this problem.”
On Tuesday, UK Brexit minister Lord Frost made clear the removal of the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) oversight function in policing the protocol is a red line for the Government if a compromise deal is to be struck.
Mr Coveney said: “Very few people in Northern Ireland have raised the issue of the ECJ as a fundamental issue.
“I don’t see how the EU can change an international treaty that removes the ECJ from being the arbiter of the rules of the single market.”
He rejected the suggestion that the differences were intractable and that a collapse in talks was inevitable.
“The EU has said this is not their last word.
“This is a very genuine and serious effort to respond to the issues that have been raised.”
He said that contingency plans had been drafted by the EU in the case of the UK triggering Article 16.
If the UK did collapse the Northern Ireland Protocol, Mr Coveney predicted things entering a “very difficult space in terms of retaliatory measures”.
“This week has been frustrating, because everyone has known vice-president Sefcovic was going to launch these proposals today.
“The British Government decided to create other issues that they say must be solved. That goes back to their command paper, over the summer months, but I think focus on the EU side is to be calm and comprehensive about what they’re offering.
“There has been a lot of rancour, a lot of stand-offs, a lot of red lines, a lot of cliff edges.
“We need to try to move away from that type of negotiation now.”