EU chief Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič has said that “serious headway” must be made in talks between the UK and the bloc over the Northern Ireland Protocol this week.
The Northern Ireland Protocol forms a major part of the Brexit deal. It sees Northern Ireland remain in the EU single market for goods, enabling free trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and avoiding a hard border between the two.
However, goods going from the UK to Northern Ireland are subject to checks and control, effectively creating a border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland in the Irish Sea.
Speaking after the latest round of talks with his UK counterpart Lord Frost, which took place in London last Friday [November 12], Šefčovič [pictured] said that he hoped to see positive progress in negotiations over the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland over the course of the week.
Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland remains within the EU’s pharmaceutical regulations system, although most of its medicines are sourced from Great Britain which sits outside of this regulatory framework.
A current grace period means that the rules of the Protocol are not being enforced for the supply of medicines in the region, but when this period lapses, there are fears of potential supply complications which have seen some firms in Great Britain indicate that they will no longer supply products to Northern Ireland.
The EU has acknowledged that the Protocol is creating too many difficulties in this area and should therefore be altered.
The bloc published its proposals to change the Protocol and limit its practical impact in October, a move which if implemented will see EU law changed. However, the UK is pressing for greater changes to the Protocol’s operational and governance.
Šefčovič said: “This [making progress in the talks] is particularly important as regards the issue of medicines. I stand by my commitment to do whatever it takes to address this issue in line with what industry tells us.”
The Slovak added that agreement on medicines could form a “blueprint” for a “wider deal” between both parties to be reached.
Meanwhile, Lord Frost said that discussions between both sides would be “intensified” over this week and beyond, with “significant gaps” over certain issues still needed to be addressed for both parties to reach an agreement.
A spokesperson for the UK government has said that Article 16 of the Protocol remains a “legitimate safeguard” in the discussions, but that the UK’s aim was to negotiate a route forward that suited all parties.
The spokesperson said: “Lord Frost underlined the need to address the full range of issues the UK had identified in the course of discussions, if a comprehensive and durable solution was to be found that supported the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement and was in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
“In this context, although talks had so far been conducted in a constructive spirit, Lord Frost underlined that in order to make progress, it was important to bring new energy and impetus to discussions.”
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol states that “safeguard measures” can be taken if the Protocol is causing serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” that are likely to continue. Triggering Article 16 unilaterally suspends the parts of the Protocol causing the issues through the Article 16 safeguards clause.
However, there is not any specific guidance over what constitutes a “serious” difficulty.
Additionally, Article 16 can be invoked if the Protocol is leading to “diversion of trade”, but again there is no guidance on how this should be interpreted.
The UK government suggested back in July that the conditions were already satisfactory for safeguarding measures under Article 16 to be used, but it had opted not to use them. The government continues to maintain this position now.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] in Northern Ireland, called for the UK government to take “decisive action” within a matter of weeks.
Sir Jeffrey said: “It is essential that either the government gets an agreement with the EU, and in the absence of such an agreement that it does move to trigger Article 16.”
Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons