The battle lines over the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland have been drawn between the UK and the EU, the bloc’s chief negotiator said on Wednesday.
Maros Sefcovic would not concede on London’s request to remove the European Court of Justice as the ultimate referee on any future trade disputes, a decision that could lead to a trade war.
Taking out the ECJ as the sole arbiter was a core concession demanded by David Frost, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, this week.
In a speech on Tuesday, he said Britain would use the so-called nuclear option of triggering Article 16 to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol, if the EU did not comply.
The protocol was designed to prevent checks along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, after Britain left the bloc.
The UK government has called for the deal to be rewritten.
Brussels was expected to remain firm on the ECJ but it did make a tranche of concessions to free up the movement of trade between Northern Ireland and its EU neighbour, the Irish Republic.
Since the Brexit trade deal was struck at the beginning of this year there has been growing hostility over the onerous custom checks and the inability to import goods, such as sausages, from mainland UK.
Mr Frost said it posed a threat to peace and prosperity because it undermined the Good Friday Agreement, which brought decades of conflict in Northern Ireland to an end.
But if London’s real intent was to ease the passage of goods between Northern Ireland and the unique border it shares with the EU, it gained a tranche of concessions from Brussels.
The bloc showed willingness to compromise on the so-called “sausage wars” by allowing an 80 per cent drop in checks on supermarket goods that go from Northern Ireland to Britain. For instance, a lorry carrying 100 types of meat, dairy or confectionery would pass through with one health certificate rather than 100.
In exchange for more relaxed controls, Britain must ensure border inspection posts are in place.
Mr Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, said he wanted to bring an end to the sparring that had developed between the two sides. But he also suggested that the proposals were not being presented on a “take it or leave it” basis.
His original presentation made no mention of the ECJ. In subsequent questioning he was asked several times by journalists if the EU would accede to the British demand.
“It's very clear that you cannot have access to the [EU] single market without the supervision of the ECJ but I think that we should really put aside this business of the red lines,” he said.
When pressed again, he responded: “We have the European Court of Justice as a final arbiter and I think that’s very, very clear.”
Despite the red line issue, Mr Sefcovic was hopeful that the new arrangements of a refreshed deal could be in place by the New Year and said he would discuss them with Mr Frost on Friday.
“I invite the UK Government to engage with us earnestly and intensively on all our proposals. I’m convinced we could be in the homestretch when it comes to the protocol,” he said.
In response to his words, London issued a statement that did not appear to concede any ground. “Significant changes” had to be made to the protocol “including governance”, it said, referring to the ECJ role.
“We need to find a solution which all sides can get behind for the future, which safeguards the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, and which puts the UK-EU relationship on a stronger footing,” it concluded.
For now, it appears London is unwilling to concede on a key Brexiteer demand. However, the EU concessions might make it think again.