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Thursday, February 22, 2024

EU urges UK to accept Swiss-style deal to end agri-food standoff

The European Union urged London on Tuesday (6 July) to consider a Swiss-style veterinary agreement with Brussels on agri-foods to end a post-Brexit ‘sausage war’ row over certain goods moving between Britain and its province of Northern Ireland.

Tension has mounted over trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, particularly for chilled meats, because the province’s open border with EU member Ireland is Britain’s only land frontier with the EU and its vast single market.

European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, the EU executive’s chief interlocutor with Britain since it completed its exit from the bloc last year, said the biggest challenge for Brussels was how to rebuild trust and realign its relationship with London.

“To build trust in each other requires first working together cooperatively and refraining from surprises,” he said, referring to Britain’s unilateral extension of grace periods for some food imports to Northern Ireland.

“In response, we were forced to launch an infringement procedure (legal action), and without satisfactory steps by the UK to remedy these measures we will have no choice but to step up these legal proceedings,” he told a conference.

Trading arrangements for the province are governed by the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit divorce deal Britain agreed with the bloc.

It seeks to find a delicate balance between keeping open the border to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and stopping goods flowing unchecked into the EU.

The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU while the rest of the United Kingdom is outside it, but this requires controls on goods arriving from mainland Britain. Disruptions to deliveries of some products have angered some pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland.

London says an important part of Brexit is not being bound to EU rules and has called on the EU to be less legalistic and more flexible in finding solutions to the standoff.

Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Lindsay Appleby, told the conference that London sees “a very broad and very significant range of problems” stemming from the protocol that needs to be addressed while the EU sees only “a few very specific problems”.

“It can’t really be the case that prohibiting the movement of British sausages is necessary for the preservation of the single market,” Appleby said. “The problems are much more severe than the kind of problems that the Commission is currently talking about solutions to.”

Šefčovič said legal steps over the protocol were not the EU’s preferred option and that an agreement last week to a three-month extension for free movement of chilled meats into the province signalled its willingness to find pragmatic solutions.

He said a longer-term solution to avoid Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks for agri-food products, ranging from live animals to fresh meat and plant products, could be along the lines of an agreement the EU has with Switzerland.

That pact removes nearly all physical SPS checks, though not documentary checks, and achieves this through a dynamic regulatory mechanism that creates a Common Veterinary Area.

“This could be negotiated very quickly and would address many concerns,” Šefčovič said. “The UK continuing to apply EU SPS rules will do away with a vast majority of the checks in the Irish Sea and would not require checks elsewhere, say in Northern Ireland.”

He said he was aware of the British government’s concerns about such a solution, but added it was important “not to get too caught up” with concerns about alignment of rules and regulations between Britain and the EU.

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