Existing checks on agricultural goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would have to increase ten-fold after Brexit, the EU’s chief negotiator has said – an ultimatum that is likely to enrage Northern Irish unionists and eurosceptics.
Speaking to business leaders in Brussels, Michel Barnier laid out new details about the EU’s updated plan to find a solution to the Irish border issue – which is threatening to sink talks and cause a no-deal.
The intensification of the checks is highly unlikely to be accepted by the DUP, who have said they will use their crucial Commons votes against any deal that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.
Mr Barnier said customs and VAT details could be filled out online by traders and that the only physical checks needed for them would be the scanning of a barcode on a ferry across the Irish sea or at a port. He said such checks “already exist in many EU member states – such as between mainland Spain and the Canary islands”.
The negotiator also said the EU believed regulatory compliance checks for industrial goods could be carried out at the premises of businesses.
But Mr Barnier warned that so-called phytosanitary checks on live animals and other agricultural products had to be carried out at the border, and would have to apply to 100 per cent of all imports. Some of these checks already exist, but they are only conducted as spot-checks and applied to just 10 per cent of imports.
“EU rules are very clear: such checks must happen at the border because of food safety and animal health reasons,” he told business leaders.
“Obviously in the future the island of Ireland will remain and must remain a simple epidemiologic area, obviously.
“Such checks already exist in the port of Larne and Belfast. However they would have to cover 100 per cent rather than 10 per cent of live animals and animal-derived products, which would involve a significant change in terms of scale.”
He added that there would have to be “administrative procedures that do not exist today” but that “the EU proposes to carry out these checks in the least intrusive way possible”.
“The UK wants to leave and will leave the single market and customs union. This means that there must be checks on goods travelling between the EU and the UK and checks that do not exist today,” he warned.
Mr Barnier said such checks could be reduced in scope in the future if the UK and EU signed a veterinary agreement down the line as part of a trade deal.
Brussels is currently in an information lockdown for the final stages of talks, with officials tighter-lipped than usual about progress coming towards a solution.
The British government has indicated that it would accept regulatory checks proposed by Mr Barnier and that it does not see them as a breach of the UK’s sovereignty in the same way as it sees customs checks.
But the DUP has made clear that it does not see things the same way, meaning a deal could be agreed between the government and EU and then voted down by Ms May’s allies in the Commons.
British officials are currently in Brussels for talks.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has done a tour of EU figures today and yesterday to make her party’s views on the Ireland issue known.
Theresa May will come to Brussels next week for a summit, which the EU has described as the “moment of truth”. Brussels says the outlines of a deal must be ready in time for that meeting, and that – if they are – a special emergency summit could be called in November to finalise it. Briefing senior Commission officials on Wednesday Mr Barnier said "decisive progress" would be required for a November summit.
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