Q&A: What are the latest EU proposals for NI’s post-Brexit trade?

The EU has proposed changes to post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland in a bid to solve differences with the UK and make trading easier for businesses in Northern Ireland.

What has been announced?

The European Commission has offered to make changes to the rules that would scrap checks and a large volume of paperwork on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain. It is also proposing to allow the distribution of medicines made in Britain in the North and to give people, businesses and politicians in Northern Ireland a say in how the trading rules are implemented.

Wasn’t all this decided before?

The EU and UK previously agreed on the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit divorce agreement that avoided checks along the Irish Border by leaving Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods. That creates a new trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Unionists argued that this undermined the North’s place in the UK and businesses complained about the red tape associated with that new economic border.

So how is Brussels proposing to make life easier under the protocol?

It is essentially agreeing to bend its rules and loosen its enforcement of those rules to make it easier for businesses to get products into the North from Britain.

What will this involve?

The proposals would lead to a 80 per cent reduction in checks on food products coming from Britain that are sold in Northern Ireland’s shops and supermarkets and a 50 per cent reduction in customs forms to be completed on goods entering from Britain.

In practical terms, how will this work?

For example, a Marks & Spencer’s truck transporting 100 different food products such as dairy products, fish, fruit or vegetables would no longer need one certificate for each item but just one certificate for the whole truck stating that all goods meet the requirements of EU law.

A business importing products of animal origin such as yoghurt, cheese or chicken from Britain would no longer be subjected to the same level of checks so this would make it easier for large British supermarkets, which send trucks filled with lots of different products, get food onto Northern Ireland’s shelves more quickly and easily.

A company importing goods from Britain will only need to provide basic information to clear customs in the North. The commission gave the example of a car dealer importing parts who would only need to give the invoice value of the parts and the parties to the transaction.

Chilled meats, the importation of which are normally banned by the EU from third countries, will be permitted to enter Northern Ireland from Britain so this should rule out the possibility of a sausage war that was threatened earlier this year.

Small and medium-sized businesses would escape the bureaucratic burden of checks with the EU’s proposal to extend the number of goods not considered at risk of entering the single market to a wider group of businesses and products.

To make all this possible, the EU is proposing the creation of express lanes to allow goods bound for the North only to be processed from Brtiain more quickly.

Are there conditions for the UK?

Yes. The UK must build long-promised permanent border control posts to manage the rules and provide safeguards like clear labels on products designated for Northern Ireland only.

The UK government and private companies must provide real-time access to their product and supply databases so Brussels knows where products are going to ensure that none end up south of the Border in the EU single market.

Will all this settle the differences between London and Brussels?

It may help the mood music around finding a negotiated solution but Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost has made it clear the UK wants the European Court of Justice’s role as arbiter of protocol disputes between the EU and UK removed.

Brussels has said this is not a runner.