“We will not agree to a renegotiation of the Protocol,” said Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president, in an official statement.
The demands include abandoning full Irish Sea trade checks – due to start in October, when “grace periods” expire – and for Brussels to shelve legal action for non-implementation of existing terms.
The UK also wants the Protocol to “no longer be policed by EU institutions and courts of justice” – the bedrock for ensuring London can be punished for non-compliance, in EU eyes.
And a so-called “honesty box” approach should allow goods “meeting both UK and EU standards to circulate” in Northern Ireland, Brexit minister David Frost argued.
Checks would only be carried out on goods definitely destined for the Republic of Ireland – a dual-standards regime long rejected by the EU, for fear it will undermine its single market.
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In the statement, Mr Sefcovic reiterated that the Protocol was “the joint solution” reached to solve the problems provoked by “the type of Brexit chosen by the British government”.
Pointing to the overarching need to protect “the integrity” of the single market, he added: ”In order for these objectives to be achieved, the Protocol must be implemented.”
David McAllister, chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, underlined the gulf across the Channel, saying the EU would not allow the agreement to be “undermined”.
“The protocol was painstakingly negotiated under high political pressure, ensuring to minimise disruption and to help local communities and businesses. It cannot be renegotiated,” he said.
And Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, insisted: “Any solutions must take place within the framework of the Protocol and the principles that underpin it.”
The UK demands added up to a move to renegotiate the Protocol entirely, rather than simple seeking changes to customs and animal products rules, to reduce the impact of the trade border in the sea.
Crucially, Lord Frost claimed a threshold had been passed “to justify the use of Article 16” – the mechanism that would suspend the Protocol – although the UK would not do so yet.
The Democratic Unionist Party hailed “a significant step in the right direction” and “an acceptance that the Protocol is not sustainable”.
But there was widespread criticism of the UK’s refusal to seek a compromise, the CBI calling for “mutually agreed workable lasting solutions”, including common food standards to remove checks.
The British Chambers of Commerce said: “A negotiated solution on customs, agri-food and e-commerce deliveries which deals with all of the red tape issues, is preferable to unilateral actions.”
And Simon Hoare, the Conservative chair of the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, said: “Common sense and pragmatism must not be a dirty word for either side.”
The clash opens up a two-month period – before full border controls are due to be imposed – in which the UK will test the EU’s resolve, to see if it escalates the disagreement to the courts or imposes checks unilaterally.
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