Blog: EU diplomats float emergency Brexit plan to restrict Ireland’s single market access – POLITICO.eu

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LONDON — EU officials and diplomats are discussing an emergency plan to solve the impasse over the Brexit settlement in Northern Ireland by restricting Ireland’s access to the bloc’s single market for goods.

The idea, which is causing extreme anxiety in Dublin where officials see it as unfair punishment for its neighbor’s decision to Brexit, is meant as a backup plan to solve the conundrum of where to carry out vital checks on goods. These are designed to protect EU countries from food and plant diseases.

That issue was meant to have been solved by the Northern Ireland protocol, a key part of the Brexit deal, but London is resisting implementing this part of the agreement which it claims is unworkable.

Ahead of a key meeting Wednesday with his U.K. counterpart, Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič threatened in an op-ed for the Telegraph that “the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely” if the U.K. does not budge (and the EU’s arsenal is diverse.) But Irish officials fear that even the possibility of the plan — which would amount to treating Irish goods going to other EU members as coming from a third country — will take the pressure off the U.K. to live up to its commitments under the Brexit deal.

The controversial proposal was originally discussed as part of the Irish contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit in 2019, when the U.K. parliament voted down the Withdrawal Agreement three times. But an EU official said it is back on “everybody’s minds” now because of growing worries over a need for a plan B.

“That is why they [the Irish] are so worried, because they know they might have to pay the price,” they said. “Nobody is willing to say this is going to have consequences for Ireland directly yet, but it is a bit sous-entendu [implied].”

The problem stems from the U.K.’s unwillingness to carry out so-called sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on food and plants coming from mainland Britain at Northern Irish ports. This arrangement — which effectively puts Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market with respect to the checks — was drawn up to negate the need for a politically-sensitive economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The fear is that border posts there would become targets for dissident Republican groups and could spark a cycle of violence.

The EU regards the SPS checks as crucial to prevent food disease outbreaks and the unauthorized entry of products such as hormone-treated beef into the single market if the U.K. enters trade deals with countries such as Brazil or Australia. But despite signing up to the arrangement, London is now citing practical difficulties in implementing the checks — as well as intense opposition from the unionist community in Northern Ireland who regard them as creating an economic barrier between the region and the rest of the U.K.

In March, the U.K. unilaterally decided to extend a grace period on when the checks would be introduced, prompting legal action from the EU.

Intense technical talks over the last few weeks have failed to yield an agreement, and frustration with the British government is building in Brussels and EU capitals ahead of Wednesday’s meeting between Šefčovič and his U.K. counterpart David Frost.

Doomsday scenario

If the U.K. refuses to budge and both sides agree the checks can’t be carried out between North and South, that then poses the question of where they are to take place.

Some among the EU27 have started to believe that, while undesirable, there is only one option left, the EU official said. “Goods arriving from Ireland [into the EU] would be checked as if they were coming from a third country.”

The idea of erecting a barrier between Ireland and the rest of the EU single market has begun to resonate beyond the EU and U.K. A U.S. official said an Irish counterpart had expressed concerns about the backup plan, and confirmed these were renewed proposals as a result of the U.K.’s position.

The official said a French counterpart had described the idea as emergency planning and had said there was no choice but to come up with a fallback option in the absence of clear Irish contingency measures. The French government did not respond to a request for comment.

The lack of an Irish alternative if Britain continues to dig its heels in is also causing concern for businesses. Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, a lobby group for Northern Irish manufacturing firms, said nothing from his conversations with Irish ministers and officials made him think Dublin had come up with any better alternatives.

The public reaction to any EU checks on Irish produce “would destroy pretty much all the [Irish] ministers who had to implement them, and it would finish the government,” Kelly said.

“That’s a doomsday scenario in terms of Ireland. And for some of those types of scenarios you don’t build a contingency because they’re just so extreme and so beyond what you would accept that you just don’t plan for that.”

Irish diplomats and officials dismissed the idea as politically impossible, pointing to U.S. President Joe Biden’s support for Ireland.

No matter how light-touch the checks could be made, imposing them on goods moving from Ireland to the rest of the EU would be interpreted in Dublin as a demotion of Ireland’s position in the single market and unfair punishment for the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU.

Not a viable solution

Britain would relish that, an Irish diplomat said, warning that any references to the possibility of checks away from the Irish sea could embolden London to take further unilateral action on the Northern Ireland protocol — knowing the EU would just implement the checks elsewhere. A separate grace period for food safety checks on chilled meats like sausages and mince is due to end on June 30 and the EU fears the U.K. will unilaterally extend that too.

The diplomat confirmed the idea was one of several options discussed in 2019, but denied it was being floated again.

“It was certainly never an option that was accepted or acceptable to Ireland,” they said. “It is not a viable solution. To take Ireland out of the single market [for SPS checks] would be very drastic … This is probably not the direction that the EU politically would want to take.”

Kelly agrees. “We do believe there’s goodwill in the Commission to try to fix some of these issues, however there are member states in particular the French who are more interested in being firm with the U.K. than being fair to the people of Northern Ireland. That’s a worry for us.”

The idea of checking Irish goods has not been discussed in formal meetings because this is not the Commission’s policy nor desired outcome and there are still hopes “that the protocol can survive,” the EU official said.

An EU diplomat said the move would be “counterproductive,” adding that it had not been part of formal Brexit discussions in the Council of the EU. “It would play in the hands of the U.K., which has been taking all sorts of actions to do away with SPS checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. If the whole island of Ireland was kept out of the EU’s SPS zone, we would hand a present to the British while punishing our Irish friends, who’ve been loyally defending the EU’s interests.”

But a second EU diplomat, from a country other than France and Ireland, who had not heard of the plan, offered a more resigned take: “It may sound realistic, unfortunately.”

Jacopo Barigazzi, Rym Momtaz and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

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