Brexit ‘big gap’: The EU’s 5 key proposals, 3 red lines – and what the UK will do next

Brexit: Expert explains row over NI Protocol concessions

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Northern Ireland has been a sticking point in Brexit negotiations since day one. The only land border with the EU is a complicated one for political and social reasons, with a need to remain in the EU single market, but without a border between the rest of the UK. How to solve this problem has been debated, negotiated and fought over for years now. This week, the UK issued some firm rhetoric, and the UK unveiled a new package of proposals – here is everything you need to know.

What the EU proposed

The European Commission issued what it called a “robust package of creative, practical solutions” to the Northern Ireland border issue.

The EU has repeatedly said it is not willing to fully renegotiate the protocol, which was agreed in the 2019 Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – but said this new set of proposals makes renegotiation unnecessary.

The document issued covers four areas and sees the EU offering to reduce about 80 percent of checks on goods and about 50 percent of paperwork.

The key proposals include:

1. Most food products will not need to be physically checked when arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

2. A cut to the required administration for Northern Ireland importers.

3. Expanded trusted trader arrangements meaning more products and companies are exempt from customs tariffs.

4. Changes to current laws to ensure there is no disruption to moving medicines across the Irish Sea, by allowing Great Britain to continue acting as a hub for the  supply of generic medicines to Northern Ireland.

5. Improved engagement from the EU with stakeholders in Northern Ireland including politicians and business groups, with increased participation from Northern Irish institutions to make the rules “more transparent”.

What the UK wants

On Tuesday, one day before the EU issued its new set of plans, the UK’s Brexit minister David Frost turned up the heat on Brussels, saying a failure to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol would “would be a historic misjudgment”.

The UK hasn’t given a detailed response to the EU’s proposals yet, with a spokesperson for the Government saying officials were “studying the detail” and insisted it “will of course look at them seriously and constructively.”

Raoul Ruparel, a former Brexit adviser to ex-U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, said the proposals “are definitely enough” to start negotiations and include “massive improvements” to key issues – but there are still a few points where the two sides will disagree.

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Things the UK wants that the EU hasn’t offered:

1. An end to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) when it comes to EU law in Northern Ireland. The EU has ruled out any changes to this part of the protocol, which it considers an ideological demand that does not affect Northern Irish businesses and citizens.

2. The package fails to address Britain’s demand to change state aid rules in Northern Ireland, which requires the UK to inform Brussels of any state subsidy decisions benefitting British firms supplying goods to Northern Ireland, which the UK says allows unfair competition.

3. The unfettered movement of pets between Great Britain and Northern Ireland isn’t included in the proposals – The EU had hoped the UK would agree to pet passports, but this idea was dropped because it would require the UK to fully align with EU rules. The UK wants pets to be exempt if they don’t cross into the EU

What happens next?

The European Commission says it believes it will take “a few weeks” to allow time for the UK to consider the proposals and begin discussions.

An EU official said: “I think that both sides would want by the end of the year to have an understanding how this protocol should function.”

The EU has said it is eager to keep the dialogue open and allow for further negotiations.

An official said: “We are not presenting these proposals to the UK Government as a take-it-or-leave-it package.

“We want them to feed into our discussions over the coming weeks.”

But there is still a chance things could go wrong yet again.

There are some subjects – like the presence of the CJEU – which are proving near impossible to negotiate.

An EU official said on Wednesday: “Should the UK insist on its constitutional concerns then there remains a very big gap between the ideas we’re putting on the table today and what the UK government is asking for.

“There won’t be a further governance package in addition to what we’re presenting today.”

If the UK rejects the EU’s proposals and demands a full negotiation of the protocol – which the EU has repeatedly said it will not offer – and the situation deteriorates, the UK could trigger Article 16.

Article 16, negotiated in the original Brexit deal, sets out the process for taking unilateral “safeguard” measures – ie, suspending parts of the deal entirely – if either the EU or UK concludes that the operation of the deal is leading to serious problems.

Triggering Article 16 would lead to a drastic escalation of bilateral tensions and could trigger a trade war, which neither side wants.

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