EU pessimism grows over any NI protocol breakthrough
The EU is growing increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of a breakthrough on how the Northern Ireland Protocol is implemented, with senior officials and diplomats warning that the UK appears determined to undermine it.
Senior figures have told RTÉ News that a meeting of the EU UK Joint Committee next week will be more a showdown over the UK's continued sniping against the Protocol, and continued unilateral moves to delay its implementation, rather than the hoped for breakthrough that might put an end to months of tension.
It had previously been hoped that both sides might agree on a combination of flexibilities and a roadmap to full implementation of the Protocol at next week’s meeting.
However, the EU’s co-chair of the Joint Committee Maroš Šefčovič has told EU ambassadors that the European Commission is running out of patience and will consider using tougher retaliatory measures unless the UK changes course.
While Mr Šefčovič did not spell out what these measures will be, it is understood the Commission is looking at retaliatory instruments within both the Withdrawal Agreement, and the recently ratified Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA).
This week the new DUP leader and Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots announced he was unilaterally extending a grace period relating to the treatment of pets entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
The EU has already initiated legal proceedings against the UK for a number of unilateral measures it has taken to delay implementation of the Protocol.
Nearly six months since the date the Protocol came into effect, the EU is growing increasingly alarmed at a combination of alleged British tactics.
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These include the unilateral measures delaying full implementation, constant attacks on the EU's position on the Protocol by the UK’s chief Brexit minister David Frost, the alleged failure of the UK to provide full access to UK import databases and the completion of permanent Border Control Posts (BCPs) at Northern Ireland ports, and the refusal to consider an EU UK veterinary agreement, which, EU officials have said, would do away with 80pc of the checks and controls on the Irish Sea.
"We can't let the UK destroy the Protocol with a thousand cuts," said one EU diplomat. "If they continue on like this, bit by bit, it will wear away, and they will end up with permanent derogations - or they think they will."
The European Commission had hoped that several months of technical talks between officials on both sides on some 25 areas of contention around the Protocol would have culminated in a joint roadmap that would have been announced by both sides at the upcoming Joint Committee meeting.
The hoped-for roadmap was to have been a combination of British and EU documents, and would have set out a clear timetable for implementation, while in return the European Commission would maximise any flexibilities that could be found.
In recent months the UK government has highlighted unionist objections to the Protocol - including the recent street violence - as evidence that the way the EU wants to implement it runs contrary to both the Good Friday Agreement, and the aims of the Protocol itself.
EU officials have strongly rejected this allegation, insisting that Brexit itself has damaged the peace process and that the Protocol is the least worst solution to maintain it.
The European Commission is expected to draw up state-of-play documents on key areas of contention - medicines, food safety and animal health, quotas and tariffs on steel imports, and VAT on second hand cars - in order to reassure member states, and a wider audience in Northern Ireland, that it is genuinely looking for flexibilities to make the Protocol less onerous.
Officials in Brussels and Dublin have grown increasingly angry at what they see as the UK placing the burden on "fixing" the Protocol entirely at the EU's door.
However, senior British figures, such as David Frost and the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, have accused the EU of taking a dogmatic approach to the protection of the EU’s single market at the expense of everyday life in Northern Ireland.