DUBLIN — A U.K.-EU agreement on common animal health and food-safety standards would make it much easier to ship British animals, meat and plant products into Europe’s single market, according to EU Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.
Asked Sunday in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTÉ whether the idea would ease Brexit trade tensions, Šefčovič said his officials are keeping it “on the table” and would explore this as part of intensifying EU-U.K. discussions this week.
Šefčovič was responding to a call by Northern Ireland’s center-ground Alliance Party for a U.K.-EU veterinary accord that would remove the need for sanitary and phytosanitary checks on meat and plant products, respectively. As a result, cross-border hauliers would not need signed export health certificates for each animal or food consignment, an issue causing particular consternation on Britain’s new “sea border” with U.K. member Northern Ireland.
The U.K. previously rejected the idea of a veterinary standards pact with the EU because it would keep Britain legally bound to the EU’s standards for animal health and food safety. But U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove offered a guarded welcome for Alliance’s proposals, describing them as “a potential way forward.”
Šefčovič cited his good working relationship with Gove as a platform for exploring “practical and solution-driven” steps to make trade move as smoothly as possible, including most sensitively from Britain to Northern Ireland.
He called the Northern Ireland protocol — which keeps the region both in the EU single market and the U.K. internal market — “the most complicated chapter” of four years of Brexit negotiations.
The protocol shifts enforcement of EU import controls from the Irish land border to four Northern Ireland ports, but at the cost of angering the region’s British Protestants who see it as undermining their status within the U.K.
Šefčovič said he would seek direct dialogue with “people on the ground” in both parts of Ireland to hear their experience of “the real problems.”
“I personally would like to hear from the business and civic society in Northern Ireland,” said Šefčovič, who first is scheduled to address the Irish parliament’s European affairs committee Tuesday.
Any refinements to the protocol’s regulatory requirements would have to be “a two-way street,” Šefčovič said.
“The U.K. has to show us how they’re using the flexibilities which we already agreed upon, and if there are problems, let’s solve them,” he said, referring to the protocol’s provisions offering the potential for agreeing bespoke solutions for EU customs enforcement at Northern Ireland ports.
A full assessment of “how all these flexibilities are working [is a] prerequisite for any further step,” he said.