The EU Commissioner charged with managing the Northern Ireland Protocol has refused Michael Gove’s proposal for reform.
In his letter to the Cabinet Office Minister, Maros Sefcovic ruled out “blanket derogations” on livestock and animal-based goods, stating nothing could “be agreed beyond what the Protocol foresees already”, dashing Gove’s hopes of a major overhaul.
Throughout 2020, EU officials were reported to be dismayed at the UK’s lack of preparation towards the Protocol, which functions like a straitjacket on the Northern Irish economic by applying wide-ranging restrictions on trade with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The EU is obsessed with what it calls retaining the integrity of the single market and worries that without restrictions imposed by the Protocol goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain will be able to pass unchecked into the Republic to the south and from there, flow freely into other parts of the EU.
In his letter to the Gove, Sefcovic complains ports at Belfast and Larne are not “not yet fully operational” and that veterinary controls are “not in compliance with the Withdrawal Agreement” with “very few identity checks” being made on livestock.
The Commissioner complains that consignments of all goods are accepted for export from Great Britain to any Irish port with minimal checks and paperwork, not just those in the North.
No surprise then that Sefcovic has not only rebuffed Gove but thrown in a number of demands for the British to tighten up their implementation of the Protocol.
The EU wants full access to the UK’s import and export IT systems and wants the British Government to punish businesses selling into or out of Northern Ireland with more red tape.
In his letter, Sefcovic attempted to sugar the pill by offering a glimmer of hope of pet travel, and a ban on seed potatoes “and other plants and plant products” could be lifted if the UK chose to align with EU rules.
It is widely believed the EU thinks Britain is pushing its luck over Northern Ireland after Brussels made the ill-thought move of triggering the nuclear button in the Protocol, Article 16, in order to impose a hard border for vaccines in Ireland.
For its part, the British government appears concerned that even a loose version of the protocol is too damaging to trade and is keen to keep grace periods running until 2023 while also looking to make the Protocol as flexible as possible beyond then.
The two men meet in London tomorrow.