The EU is changing its rules to allow Britain to continue supplying medicines to Northern Ireland as a first step in solving a dispute over post-Brexit trade in the region.
Brussels will legislate to permit UK-approved medicines to enter Northern Ireland to avoid a possible shortage due to post-Brexit regulations. The region remained in the single market for goods when Great Britain left the bloc to avoid a trade border on the island of Ireland.
Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, and Stella Kyriakides, the health commissioner, announced the move on Friday after talks with UK Brexit minister Lord David Frost.
Frost wants drastic changes to the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs trade in the region. But this week he dropped his demand to remove the oversight of the European Court of Justice from the protocol and has offered to agree an interim deal on the most pressing issues, deferring others until later.
He warned on Friday that talks remained difficult but the concessions have convinced many EU diplomats that the UK is seeking a deal.
Sefcovic told reporters in Brussels that the agreement on medicines showed “the protocol has the flexibility to work on the ground. We must carry this momentum into the other areas of discussion.”
Frost is looking for an independent arbitration system to manage disputes over the implementation of the protocol that would keep EU judges at one remove but still allow them oversight of matters of EU law. But Sefcovic on Friday dismissed the idea, saying the UK should stick to what it had signed upon leaving the bloc.
“Without the ECJ you cannot have access to the single market,” he said. He also claimed the protocol was working “to the benefit of Northern Ireland”, citing increased investment and a growing amount of local produce on supermarket shelves.
The two sides will continue to talk about reductions in customs and animal and food checks between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.
The EU in October proposed an “express lane” for goods heading from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland that were unlikely to leak across the border into Ireland and the wider single market. Brussels claims this would cut customs checks in half and health checks by 80 per cent. UK diplomats say the proposal does not go far enough.
Frost said the medicines law “could constitute a constructive way forward” but the UK would have to examine it carefully. “Overall, with the potential exception of medicines, I do not believe that the negotiations are yet close to delivering outcomes which can genuinely solve the problems presented by the protocol,” he added.
“The EU’s proposals only cover certain areas and would not do enough to ease the burdens faced by people in Northern Ireland; or to create the conditions for genuinely cross-community support.”
Frost also repeated his threat to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, which would unilaterally suspend some of its provisions.