Tonight First Minister Arlene Foster – who was present at the virtual meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee to oversee the Northern Ireland Protocol – said that the EU wanted more checks on British goods coming into Northern Ireland, rather than less.
The development came as further evidence emerged of the economic damage being done by the new trade frontier, with hauliers telling Stormont that their revenue fell between 25-30% in January, largely due to lorries coming back to Northern Ireland empty due to the drop in GB-NI trade.
Three weeks ago – after the EU moved to trigger Article 16 of the protocol to prevent vaccines leaving Northern Ireland, and after threats saw some staff withdrawn from conducting port checks – Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove wrote robustly to the EU to set out “the rapid action that I believe is now required”.
The senior Tory said that “there are a number of pressing problems with the operation of the Protocol that need to be addressed and we must do so this week”.
Mr Gove demanded that aspects of the new border be delayed for two years through an extension to grace periods due to run out over coming weeks and months.
One grace period has already expired and on Monday additional red tape was introduced for many meat products.
The EU did not meet Mr Gove’s deadline but last week European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič said that he wanted the issues to be resolved by yesterday. However, the highly-anticipated meeting came and went with not a single change to the new border.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, who was present with Michelle O’Neill at the virtual meeting, said it was “hugely disappointing” and she believed that Mr Gove was “slightly taken aback” by the EU’s attitude.
She told BBC Newsline: “What they have decided is that if there are problems, then what is needed to deal with those problems is not less protocol but more protocol and I think that is entirely tone-deaf.”
Mrs Foster, who is backing a legal case to overturn the protocol, said that the European Commission “wanted more checks” – not less – on goods flowing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, even though she said that the checks thus far had not identified any significant problems.
Ms O’Neill, who has called for the “rigorous implementation” of the protocol, welcomed what she described as “positive and constructive engagement” during the meeting.
She said there was a commitment by both sides to find “practical solutions” and the EU had agreed to another meeting of the committee some time during March.
TUV leader Jim Allister accused the EU of “belligerence” and added: “The Protocol is irreformable. It must go.”
This morning a leading trade expert with intimate knowledge of the protocol said that the EU could do more to make the protocol work.
Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, told the Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that if the UK was to align more closely with EU rules that would reduce some of the most burdensome checks and that the EU could extend its tolerance for what crosses fro GB to NI to include areas such as pets and chilled meat products.
He said: “I just don’t really accept that there’s a risk to the EU single market if sausages are coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. That can and should be resolved...I would hope that there is flexibility on the EU side to allow this to happen.”
He added: “One of the reasons that this flexibility isn’t more forthcoming is that many member states really do believe this argument that Northern Ireland really has the best of both worlds and they are worried not only about Northern Ireland being a gateway to the single market, but also more fundamentally that Northern Irish-based companies will out-compete their own because of the position Northern Ireland has found itself in.”
Another trade expert, David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project, said that “there were always going to be issues between the EU and the UK. I am concerned about the lack of representation from Northern Ireland into an EU which is passing regulations that will affect Northern Ireland.”
Ulster University’s senior economist Esmond Birnie said that the protocol was leading to higher costs for consumers and also higher costs to manufacturing businesses using GB materials. He said that the £100 million-a-year cost of the government-funded Trader Support Service (TSS) which helps companies with the new customs red tape – only one of many new impediments to trade – was “indicative of at least some of the scale of the additional bureaucracy”.
However, he highlighted that the TSS is not permanent and so firms may ultimately have to pay those costs themselves. Dr Birnie said that some NI food processors are now selling more into the Republic because of problems getting items from GB to the Republic. However, he said that he believed that overall costs were rising more rapidly for Northern Ireland companies than for GB companies.
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