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Brexit: EU proposes nixing most Northern Ireland checks

The measures could halve customs paperwork and checks on meat, dairy and other food products coming to Northern Ireland.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

One of the thorniest issues in the Brexit negotiations was the future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic

The EU offered a number of concessions to the United Kingdom on Wednesday in order to avoid a post-Brexit trade war. The sticking point between the two has been customs checks in the Irish Sea known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The EU offer, which observers say will still not likely be enough for the UK, would slash customs checks and paperwork on British products destined for Northern Ireland.

What are the new proposals?

The proposed measures could halve customs paperwork and checks on meat, dairy and other food products coming to Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, and ensure that the flow of medicines, especially generics, are not disrupted.

Despite concessions, the result will see an effective customs border in the Irish Sea, potentially disturbing trade from the rest of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland and angering pro-Britain unionists.

Watch video 02:36

Northern Ireland businesses face post-Brexit hurdles

"I have listened to and engaged with Northern Irish stakeholders. Today's proposals are our genuine response to their concerns," European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said it welcomed the move and would study the proposal in detail.

"However, there is no escaping the reality that the Northern Ireland Protocol has harmed Northern Ireland, both in economic and constitutional terms," party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said in a statement released by the DUP

"This is about supermarket supply chains across all foodstuffs, which is the vast majority of checks required under the protocol, and the paper will propose the removal of the vast majority of those checks," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Irish broadcaster RTE.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

One of the thorniest issues in the Brexit negotiations was the future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. An open border is a key feature of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — a peace deal that ended decades of sectarian violence over the issue of Northern Ireland unifying with the Irish Republic or remaining part of the UK.

In 2019, the UK and the EU agreed to install customs checkpoints on shipping lanes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to prevent goods from entering the EU illegally. 

Watch video 04:59

Post-Brexit tensions in Northern Ireland

After Britain left the European Union's single market at the start of 2021, difficulties in moving goods from the mainland to Northern Ireland have mounted.

For a while, the European Union maintained that it would not renegotiate a deal that both parties agreed to in good faith.

With the threat of a trade war looming, the European Commission agreed to work on a new set of compromises.

Why is the Irish Border Protocol so important?

"The protocol avoids a physical hardening of the border on the island of Ireland — but at the expense of what is seen as a 'border in the Irish Sea,' and one that undermines Northern Ireland's position in the UK internal market and heightens concerns about Northern Ireland's long-term future as part of the United Kingdom," David Phinnemore, a professor of European politics at Queen's University Belfast, told DW. 

"Many unionists maintain that the protocol has altered Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom and without their consent," Phinnemore said. This consent is a major facet of the Good Friday Agreement.

For others less concerned about Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom, the agreement was seen "as a pragmatic solution" that "avoids a physical hardening of the border," Phinnemore said. "And it does allow Northern Ireland unfettered access to both the UK and the EU market."

"Others counter that Brexit has also been imposed on Northern Ireland without its consent," Phinnemore said. "A majority of voters in 2016 voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU. The overall effect of Brexit and the protocol is increased political tension — and the concern is: This could lead to further political instability."

Watch video 23:55

Bertie Ahern on Conflict Zone

js,es/wmr (Reuters, AFP, AP)