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EU refuses to reopen talks about NI deal

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-07-23 09:36
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A lorry enters a government facility near Belfast Harbour in Northern Ireland on Wednesday. PA WIRE

Renegotiation of agreement looks unlikely as bloc stands ground in face of demands

Another post-Brexit political confrontation between the United Kingdom and the European Union looks likely as the bloc stands its ground in the face of UK demands that "significant changes" be made to the agreement reached last December.

The status of Northern Ireland, which has remained in the EU single market, is once again the issue at stake. Its position is covered by a part of the agreement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which gets round the need for a hard physical border between the British region and EU member state the Republic of Ireland, with there instead being an invisible customs frontier running down the Irish Sea, separating the island of Ireland from Great Britain.

Brexit Minister David Frost, who negotiated the deal last year, now wants what he calls a "new balance" and insists that things "cannot go on as we are"-but the EU is having none of it.

"We take note of the statement made (by Frost) today," said European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

"We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today. We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol."

Ireland's Minister for European Affairs Thomas Bryne offered a slightly less entrenched view, while sticking to the EU position.

"We don't want to renegotiate the protocol, it's there. But within the protocol there are creative ways of doing things," he said.

The stakes were raised on Thursday when Britain's Prime Minster Boris Johnson spoke to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, with a Downing Street spokesman saying he had "set out that the way the Protocol was currently operating was unsustainable … he urged the EU to look at those proposals seriously and work with the UK on them."

One of Frost's proposed changes is that it should ensure "goods circulate much more freely within the UK customs territory while ensuring that full processes are applied to goods destined for the EU", as on Wednesday he said that the current processes "have been a source of considerable and ongoing disruption to lives and livelihoods".

In the run-up to the 2019 British general election, where Johnson campaigned on a promise to "Get Brexit done", he was filmed talking to business leaders in Northern Ireland.

When asked about the possibility for customs procedures being introduced between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as has happened, he said "if somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the Prime Minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.

"You'll be alright… there will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access."

The ultimate sanction for either side is to invoke Article 16 of the Brexit agreement, which allows either party to suspend part of the agreement.

Frost said that "it is clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16" but "it is not the right moment to do so".

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