U.K. Seeks Interim N. Ireland Deal as EU Offers Medicines Fix
(Bloomberg) -- The European Union unveiled a proposal to speed the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland from the U.K. as London indicated a willingness to soften its stance in the long-running dispute over its post-Brexit relationship with the bloc.
Both the EU and Great Britain said they’d like to reach an agreement early in 2022, while also emphasizing that an accord would require the other side to make considerably more concessions.
The U.K. on Friday said it would accept an interim deal in its effort to renegotiate the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the agreement that allowed the U.K. to leave the EU’s single market without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland. Previously, Britain wanted to solve all post-Brexit issues affecting the region at once, but is now open to coming back to some questions in future.
“Given the gravity and urgency of the difficulties, we have been prepared to consider an interim agreement as a first step to deal with the most acute problems,” Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost said in a statement, citing issues such as barriers to trade, subsidy control and the role of European Court of Justice as problems he wanted to see resolved. “A solution needs to be found urgently early next year.”
Under the protocol, goods moving into Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. are subject to customs checks if they are at risk of being later moved into the EU. Britain is demanding changes to the accord, which the government says has inhibited trade between different parts of the U.K.’s own single market.
Frost’s new approach may not gain traction in the bloc, which prefers to reach a conclusive agreement with the U.K. and not do things in stages, according to an EU official, who asked not to be identified because talks are ongoing. The EU also isn’t planning to keep renewing grace periods for the rules indefinitely and could still resume infringement procedures if necessary, the official added.
The U.K. concession came as the EU published proposals for easing the flow of medicines into Northern Ireland, saying it would change its rules to ensure that shipments heading to Northern Ireland wouldn’t face delays. Frost said the proposal could constitute a way forward and they would look at it positively, but they hadn’t yet been able to scrutinize it in full.
The proposal would allow generic medicines to be authorized under U.K. rules, create a solution for life-saving medicines to be supplied to Northern Ireland at the same time they’re authorized in the rest of the U.K. and remove the need for manufacturing authorization or import licenses, according to an EU statement.
“Everyone in Northern Ireland will have access to the same medicines at the same time as elsewhere in the U.K.,” Sefcovic told reporters in Brussels.
Despite the newfound momentum, Frost reiterated a threat to unilaterally suspend parts of the post-Brexit settlement using the Article 16 provision in the protocol. He gave a downbeat assessment of how talks are going so far, calling them “disappointing.”
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One of the biggest points of contention in the protocol is governance, with the U.K. seeking to remove the oversight of the European Court of Justice. The EU says its top court must be involved to have a properly functioning single market
A condition of the interim agreement would be that the ECJ doesn’t settle disputes between the U.K. and EU, either now or in future, according to a person familiar with the U.K. position, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Such an interim deal would “still leave many underlying strains unresolved,” Frost said. “It would therefore be inherently provisional by nature and would accordingly need to include mechanisms for addressing outstanding issues and resolving new concerns as they arise.”
The existence of the bureaucratic burden flows from the Brexit accord, signed by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that agreed to an effective customs border in the Irish Sea to avoid creating a post-Brexit land border on the island of Ireland.
“I can reassure you that breaching international law, breaching agreements which have been signed just months ago, doesn’t create trust, doesn’t make the negotiations easier,” Sefcovic said. “It’s time to resolve all these issues caused by the type of Brexit the U.K. government has chosen, and to move on, and hopefully to rebuild the kind of relationship the EU and U.K. deserve.”
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