EU and UK negotiators have made a breakthrough in reducing checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as part of efforts to resolve the long-running dispute over the Northern Irish protocol.
A senior EU official confirmed to the Guardian that an agreement on food and animal health checks was “close to being done” as part of a deal that would create red and green lanes at Northern Irish ports to differentiate between goods staying in the region and those moving south to the EU’s single market.
Goods from Great Britain destined to stay in Northern Ireland would go through a green lane with lighter checks, although the precise nature of customs paperwork, and food and animal health checks remains unclear.
The deal would require the UK to meet EU requirements to prevent food and animals for Northern Ireland slipping into the EU’s internal markets via the Irish land border. Food products would have to be labelled; UK authorities would have to undertake market surveillance to monitor and enforce food safety and animal welfare standards.
Last month the EU and UK struck a deal on real-time data-sharing on goods moving across the Great Britain-Northern Ireland border that is regarded as critical for any reduction in checks on Northern Ireland-only goods.
The latest development raises hopes of a broader agreement on the protocol, but the senior source cautioned that “nothing has happened” on other difficult issues, including the role of the European court of justice.
The agreement on red and green lanes and links to food and animal standards was reported on Monday by Ireland’s public broadcaster RTÉ, following earlier reports of a breakthrough on customs checks.
The European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, who is leading talks for the commission, did not respond directly to a question about whether the EU had accepted the UK’s red and green lanes proposal, but said the two sides were working closely and constructively.
“Progress is being made, but difficulties remain,” he told reporters after briefing EU ministers on the protocol talks. “For us it is very clear equation: more and stronger safeguards we can get, more flexibility we can explore.”
Customs has long been seen as the area with the greatest potential for compromise as the UK and EU have similar ideas. In October 2020 the European Commission proposed an express lane for goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland and posing no risk of going to the EU single market. But while the commission believes it could reduce paperwork by 50%, the UK government wanted to end all checks on lorries travelling through the green lane.
Recalling the EU express lane proposal, Šefčovič said: “We do not insist on the precise names, we just want to make sure that the system would work.”
The nature of green-lane controls remains unclear and has been discussed in minute detail during negotiations, down to exactly where on packaging “Northern Ireland-only” product labels would be placed.
The Northern Ireland protocol was an integral part of the 2019 Brexit agreement signed between Boris Johnson and the EU. To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, it created a border in the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland following EU single market and customs rules, policed by the European court of justice.
About seven months after the end of the Brexit transition in 2021, Johnson demanded a full-scale renegotiation, taking EU-UK relations to an all-time low.
Despite progress on customs and food and animal checks, EU sources stressed other issues remain unsolved, including the ECJ. “Šefčovič is ready to compromise on everything except the ECJ,” said a second senior EU source. “The ECJ is the reddest of red lines.”
EU officials also remain cautious or sceptical as to whether Rishi Sunak can persuade his party to back a protocol deal, notably hardline eurosceptic backbenchers that have insisted the ECJ should be scrapped from the protocol.
But there have been signs of a softening from the Democratic Unionist party, which has been blocking the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland over protocol issues for a year.
The DUP has laid down seven conditions to return to Stormont, but at the weekend its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, was not as hardline, saying the party was seeking “replacing the democratic deficit created by the protocol” with “the restoration of democratic decision making” at the assembly, a reference to the fact that Northern Ireland must observe EU laws on trade as part of the Brexit arrangements.
He had met Ireland’s foreign minister Micheál Martin on Friday and described the talks as “useful and constructive” hinting at more wriggle room.
British officials last week rejected suggestions of a deal, saying significant gaps remained between the two sides. Contacted for comment, a UK government spokesperson indicated that the position had not changed.