Brussels has been told to stop European courts overseeing the Northern Ireland Protocol and to renegotiate customs checks rules in a major intervention by the UK Government.
Government ministers on Wednesday published their proposals to change the Protocol, which governs how to keep trade flowing on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Lord Frost, the minister overseeing Brexit-linked talks with the EU, and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, made joint statements in Parliament on Wednesday.
A command paper outlining proposals from the UK Government about how the Protocol should be changed was also published.
It amounted to a major challenge to the EU, calling for the Protocol to be renegotiated – something the European Commission has declined flat-out to do in recent months.
But it fell short of calls to rip up the Protocol or to trigger Article 16, a process which would see the UK unilaterally ignoring promises made in the agreement.
What changes does the UK want?
The UK Government is now proposing a number of major changes in the Protocol, which was agreed before the UK left the EU.
At its heart, the Protocol mandates customs checks on goods flowing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland in order to keep the Ireland-Northern Ireland land border open given Brexit.
One change ministers are demanding is that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) no longer acts as the ultimate arbiter on any disputes about the Protocol.
Instead Boris Johnson’s Government wants a more independent arbitration panel, fearing that the ECJ will make rulings which favour Brussels rather than London.
Another change is about customs checks. In essence, the UK wants British goods which will only be sold in Northern Ireland – not then being moved into the EU single market – to be spared customs checks.
A third is that goods, such as medicines, which are approved for sale in the UK but not in the EU are still allowed to be sold in Northern Ireland.
Currently there are shortages of medicines on the shelves in Northern Ireland because certain drugs are approved for sale in the UK but not in the EU.
The changes are driven by frustration in the Johnson Government that Northern Ireland is not being treated as part of the UK, facing different rules as the mainland UK.
Critics counter that it was Mr Johnson himself who signed up to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which effectively created a customs border down the Irish Sea, to deliver Brexit.
The European Commission and EU leaders for months have publicly refused to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol, instead calling on Mr Johnson to stick to his commitments.
Joe Biden’s administration in Washington is also watching closely. It has previously called on the UK not to unilaterally rip up the agreements it has made on Northern Ireland.
UK government ministers are also lobbying for Brussels to indefinitely delay customs checks which are due to come into effect in Northern Ireland at various different dates in the autumn and winter.
Government sources are arguing that it would be best to avoid cliff-edges, such as happened at the end of June when customs checks on sausages and other chilled meats moving from Britain to Northern Ireland were due to come into effect.
The stand-off, first reported by The Telegraph, was dubbed the ‘sausage wars’. The checks were ultimately delayed until the start of October.
Who has said what today?
Britain’s proposal to remove European Union oversight of parts of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland is a significant point, but could ease many of the current problems, Brexit minister David Frost said on Wednesday.
“It simply does not fit with the reality of the situation to have laws imposed and policed by institutions outside UK territory,” Frost told the House of Lords.
“If we can agree that, and I recognise it is a significant point, I think we will find some of the problems … beginning to melt away.”
The European Union has long insisted that it is up to the Britain to implement what it agreed in their drawn-out Brexit divorce, and the US administration is also looking on warily at the UK manoeuvres.
The Government stopped short of suspending the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which requires checks on goods crossing over from mainland Britain.
But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told parliament that while the UK had negotiated the protocol “in good faith”, its real-world application by the EU had entailed “considerable and continuing burdens”.
“Put simply, we cannot go on as we are,” he said.
Rather than ad-hoc grace periods for border checks, Lewis said the UK was seeking a “standstill period” for the protocol including legal action by the EU.
He pressed for a new dialogue “that deals with the problems in the round”.
“We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and work with us to seize this opportunity and put our relations on a better footing.”
Over the Irish Sea, Ireland is willing to be flexible and creative over the Northern Ireland Protocol but Dublin does not want to renegotiate the Brexit divorce treaty.
“There is possibility for flexibility,” Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s junior minister for European Affairs, told Sky.
“Our position is that we don’t want to renegotiate the protocol.”
And German MEP David Mcallister, who chairs the European Parliament’s UK Coordination Group, said: “It cannot be renegotiated – it is part of the solution of a problem and that is Brexit! Permanent flexibilities are not acceptable.
“The Protocol was painstakingly negotiated under high political pressure, ensuring to minimise disruption & to help local communities and businesses.”