By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Commission will put to Britain on Wednesday a package of measures to ease the transit of goods to Northern Ireland, while stopping short of the overhaul London is demanding of post-Brexit trading rules for the province.
The EU executive’s measures are designed to ease customs controls, such as the clearance of meat, dairy and other food products and the flow of medicines to the British province from the UK mainland.
However, it will not open up for renegotiation the protocol governing Northern Ireland’s unique trading position, leaving Brussels and London on a potential collision course.
Maros Sefcovic, the commission vice-president in charge of EU-UK relations, will present the plans to EU countries and to members of the European Parliament on Wednesday afternoon before a news conference scheduled for 6:30 p.m. (1630 GMT).
The commission will also set out plans to engage more with people in Northern Ireland.
Oliver Dowden, the co-chairman of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, said the British government would engage fully and constructively with the European Union on the proposals, adding that the steps he had read about so far were “welcome”.
“We will look at them and engage properly with them,” he told Sky News, while also saying it was important there was “fundamental change” to the protocol.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told Newstalk radio station that the EU had listened to legitimate concerns about the protocol and was in “solution mode” and the British government had a responsibility to be in that mode too.
“It takes two to tango,” he said.
The proposals could enable supermarkets to supply Northern Irish stores with sausages and other chilled meat products from Britain that are banned from entry into the European Union – and so in theory into Northern Ireland.
While remaining part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has stayed in the EU’s single market for goods, meaning its exports to the rest of the bloc face no customs checks, tariffs or paperwork.
Sefcovic has said the arrangement allows Northern Irish businesses to enjoy the best of both worlds. However, the result is an effective customs border in the Irish Sea, disturbing trade from Britain to Northern Ireland and angering the province’s pro-British unionists.
Under the commission’s plans, British sausages, for example, would be allowed into Northern Ireland as long as they were solely intended for Northern Irish consumers.
“That’s our proposal. We will put it on the table. If… this is rejected, then indeed we have a problem,” Sefcovic said in comments last week.
British Brexit Minister David Frost said in a speech on Tuesday that London would be ready to discuss the proposals “whatever they say”, but also demanded a new “forward-looking” protocol, one without oversight from European judges.
The EU has said it cannot see how a body other than the EU’s top court could rule on the EU single market.