EU urges UK to simply accept Swiss-style deal to finish agri-food standoff

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union on Tuesday urged London to consider a Swiss-style veterinary agreement with Brussels on agri-food to end a post-Brexit “sausage war” dispute over certain goods between the UK and its province of Northern Ireland .

Tensions over trade deals for Northern Ireland, particularly for chilled meat, have increased as the province’s open border with EU member Ireland is now part of the UK’s border with the EU’s single market.

Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, who has been the EU executive’s chief interlocutor with the UK since the exit from the EU last year, said the main challenge for Brussels is to restore confidence and realign its relations with London.

“In order to build trust in one another, a cooperative collaboration and the avoidance of surprises are required,” he said, referring to the unilateral extension of the transition periods for some food imports into the province of Northern Ireland by Great Britain.

“In response, we have been forced to initiate infringement proceedings (legal action) and without satisfactory UK action to remedy these actions we will have no choice but to step up these legal proceedings,” he said at a conference.

The EU fears that goods from Northern Ireland could flow freely into the bloc’s internal market.

London says an important part of Brexit is not bound by EU rules and urged the EU to be more flexible in finding solutions to the stalemate.

Britain has also accused the EU of overly legalistic interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, an agreement that regulates post-Brexit trade agreements.

Sefcovic said legal action over the protocol was not the EU’s preferred option and that an agreement last week to extend the free movement of chilled meats in the province for three months signaled its willingness to find pragmatic solutions.

He said a longer-term solution to avoid health and phytosanitary controls (SPS) on agricultural and food products, which range from live animals to fresh meat and plant products, could be in line with an EU agreement with Switzerland.

This pact eliminates almost all physical SPS controls, but not document controls, and does so through a dynamic regulatory mechanism that creates a common veterinary area.

“This could be negotiated very quickly and would resolve many concerns,” said Sefcovic. “The UK, which continues to apply the EU SPS rules, will abolish the vast majority of controls in the Irish Sea and would not require controls elsewhere, for example in Northern Ireland.

He said he was aware of the UK government’s concerns about such a solution, but added that it was important “not to get too involved in concerns about the alignment of rules and regulations between the UK and the EU”.

Additional reporting from Gabriela Baczynska, editor of Timothy Heritage