Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why are the EU and UK still fighting over sausages? | Politics News

Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why are the EU and UK still fighting over sausages? | Politics News

The Brexit minister is set to kick off a fresh round of talks with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol and the so-called “sausage war”.

Lord Frost will deliver a speech in Portugal today in which he will demand an overhaul of the protocol, which was agreed by both sides and is designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

However, since the transition period ended on 31 December 2020 the protocol has been a point of friction, with Downing Street saying the way it is being operated by Brussels is unsustainable.

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‘We cannot go on as we are’ – Lord Frost

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last week, Lord Frost said the UK “cannot wait forever” for a response from the EU to its proposals.

He also warned he may have to trigger Article 16 of the agreement, which would suspend part of the deal, as it may end up as “the only way forward”.

Now, the time has come for the two sides to sit down (yet again) and thrash out a deal both – hopefully – are happy with.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The UK and EU agreed to put the protocol in place after Brexit to avoid the introduction of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It states that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK’s customs territory – so if the UK signs a free-trade deal with another country, Northern Irish goods would be included.

However, Northern Ireland will have to stick to some EU rules to allow goods to move freely into the Republic and the rest of the EU.

A sign is seen with a message against the Brexit border checks in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol at the harbour in Larne, Northern Ireland February 12, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Checks imposed at Northern Ireland ports have not been popular

Goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland will not be subject to a tariff unless they are “at risk” of being moved into the EU afterwards.

But Environment Secretary George Eustice said in 2020 there would need to be “some checks on some goods” and “some customs processes but not customs checks” at the border with the Republic.

What is Article 16?

Article 16 is a clause intended to be used when the protocol is leading to serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.

It allows either the UK or the EU to act unilaterally to suspend parts of the Brexit treaty to avoid such difficulties.

Invoking the article is considered a last resort when the parties have been unable to agree a joint approach to solving the problems.

The article says measures should be restricted in scope and duration, with priority given to measures that will “least disturb” the functioning of the protocol.

The UK government says it thinks the threshold has been reached for using Article 16, but is choosing not to use it for now.

A month’s formal notice is supposed to be given before any action is taken, but immediate action is allowed in “exceptional circumstances”.

In early October, Lord Frost warned the EU had until early November to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol or the UK would trigger Article 16.

What has happened since the Brexit transition period ended?

Products from Great Britain entering Northern Ireland have had to undergo EU import procedures at the ports.

An Irish Sea border has effectively been imposed in an effort to prevent a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

This has resulted in delays and sometimes sparse supermarket shelves, with Lord Frost saying “more than 200 suppliers” had decided to stop selling to Northern Ireland.

There have also been problems with “medicines, on pets, on movements of live animals, on seeds, on plants and on many others”, he added.

Sausages on sale at the butchers at Polhill Farm Shop near Sevenoaks 20/3/2020
British sausages have been the focus of the latest disagreement

What are the UK and EU disagreeing over?

Under the protocol, a ban on sales of certain products will come in if the UK and EU cannot agree new regulatory standards on some products after the grace period ends.

In March, the UK unilaterally extended the period for supermarket goods and parcels for another six months – triggering legal action from the EU.

The grace period for chilled meat products – such as sausages – was extended at the end of June to 30 September and then again without an end date to provide the time and space for a lasting solution to be found.

Without an agreement, chilled meat from Great Britain will not be allowed to be sold in Northern Ireland after the grace period as it is not from the EU – which has its own strict standards on food products.

The EU has said the UK could align with its animal health and food safety rules to remove the need for 80% of the current Irish Sea customs checks.

But the UK had rejected this, saying it would tie Britain’s hands in trade negotiations with other countries.

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Many suppliers in Britain ‘have chosen to stop supplying to Northern Ireland’

The UK has also accused the EU of failing to engage with its own proposals, especially with the issues people in Northern Ireland are facing.

But European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic warned recurring British threats to trigger Article 16 are making it harder to find practical solutions and are stoking wider trade tensions.

Lord Frost has also demanded the European Court of Justice is dropped as the final arbiter of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Sefcovic and his team have prepared a package they believe will resolve the ongoing issues and will present it to Lord Frost on Wednesday.

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