Rishi Sunak to announce ‘fundamental’ changes to Northern Ireland trade rules

Rishi Sunak will claim on Monday that he has negotiated “fundamental” changes to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade regime as he seeks to finally end a bitter row with Brussels over the issue.

The UK prime minister and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen are expected to seal the deal to overhaul Northern Ireland’s so-called protocol in Windsor on Monday, the culmination of months of diplomacy.

Sunak will then begin the difficult task of selling the reforms to pro-Brexit Conservative MPs and the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist party, with a statement to parliament scheduled for Monday afternoon.

He has already started selling the deal, with British officials claiming Sunak has secured “fundamental” reforms to the protocol, part of Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal.

They say the deal will address concerns about trade friction for goods traveling between Britain and Northern Ireland and what local politicians call the “democratic deficit”, giving them a say in the new rules. of the EU in the region.

Two people with knowledge of the agreement said the revised agreement, which is more than 100 pages long, is an “implementation agreement” that sits on top of the protocol’s existing text.

Brussels will have to make some changes to existing EU legislation – as it did last year to resolve an issue over access to generic medicines for Northern Ireland – in order to give effect to the changes.

“It’s a correction that will allow the EU to say ‘we haven’t reopened the deal text’ but the UK can say ‘we got substantial legal changes to the package’,” one source said.

Among the expected changes is a waiver on pet passports that will allow UK residents to take their dogs into Northern Ireland without microchips and pet passports as if they were traveling to the EU, as currently required.

The EU is also expected to soften its stance on other areas of contention that make Northern Irish residents feel that their place in the UK’s internal market is being limited – for example, in relation to taking orders from Great Britain by post.

Another area that authorities are confident will be resolved is a dispute over steel quotas which led HM Revenue & Customs to warn UK producers last August that some steel products would be required to pay 25% tariffs when shipped. for Northern Ireland.

The UK’s decision to provide full data transparency to the EU, together with the construction of border checkpoints in Northern Ireland ports, is expected to unlock a radical simplification of the processes needed for traders from Britain to ship products for Northern Ireland.

It is anticipated that those registering products through a trusted trader scheme and labeling products for consumption “NI-Only” will not be required to present full customs and animal health certification at the border, although full details of the scheme have yet to emerge. .

Taken together, the UK will say, the package represents a significant improvement in the functioning of the trade border that Johnson agreed to in the Irish Sea as part of the original Northern Ireland Protocol agreement in 2019.

More problematic for Sunak may be convincing the DUP and Brexiters hardliners in his own party that the deal addresses the constitutional issues raised by the protocol.

Officials conceded the deal would not remove EU law or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for Northern Ireland, which remains part of the single market for goods, as demanded by Brexit hardliners.

Experts on both sides have indicated that Brussels has not changed substantially on the ECJ’s role in enforcing the protocol, although the UK would argue that the amount of EU law being enforced will have effectively been reduced.

The deal will also not address recent DUP demand for a dual regulatory regime in the region, with producers being able to choose to apply UK standards, rather than EU rules, for exports to the UK market.

The protocol also requires the UK to forward subsidy or “state aid” decisions that could affect the Northern Ireland merchandise trade market to Brussels. Insiders indicated that this would remain, but that only the biggest decisions required escalation.

The deal is also expected to include a system to significantly improve the level of consultation with the Northern Ireland assembly on new EU rules and regulations applicable in the region, in order to address concerns about a “democratic deficit”. caused by the protocol.

However, the consultative mechanism, which is expected to be similar to the one enjoyed by Norway as part of its agreement to implement EU single market legislation, will not amount to a veto.

Sunak hopes the deal will eventually persuade the DUP to join Stormont’s power-sharing executive, which is boycotting in protest of the protocol’s operation.

But the Prime Minister is also aiming for a much bigger prize of improving relations with the EU, including on scientific collaboration, and closer ties with US President Joe Biden, who has expressed concern over the impasse over the Northern Ireland issue. .

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