The proposed breakaway European Super League has replaced Brexit as the leading EU-based news item on mainstream media in the UK and has attracted plenty of attention in Ireland as well.

Meanwhile, in an extremely low-profile way, EU and UK negotiators are continuing to wrestle with the protocol agreed to enable Northern Ireland (NI) to operate within the EU single market and customs union, while the rest of the UK is separated completely from the EU.

That has meant border controls at NI ports, which are effectively operating as EU border control posts.

This has been controversial when the goods involved are of animal or plant origin that require veterinary certification and, in many cases, physical inspection as well.

Where small volumes are involved, the cost of administration can exceed the value of the product traded and this has caused disquiet.

Perfection not possible

It is clear that finding a solution to this won’t be to the complete satisfaction of either the EU or UK and will involve a compromise that reflects the fact that NI is effectively part of two separate single markets, that of the UK and additionally the EU.

Northern Ireland operates in both the EU and UK single markets, creating tension with the implementation of EU border controls.

For both to have perfect border controls means full certification and inspections on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) goods.

These function perfectly when large volumes are offloading at major docks, but don’t when an artisan cheese producer wants to take a 20kg parcel from Glasgow to Belfast.

What has become clear is that after three months, industry is adapting to the new circumstances, whereas sole traders and individual consumers are having more difficulty.

This is where the EU will have to compromise on its position of full controls at the point of entry.

A distinction needs to be made for industrial and large volumes of consumer goods that could be traded on from NI to the EU, as opposed to consumer goods that may be sourced in Britain but will reach the end of their journey with customers in NI with little or no risk of being traded on.

Distinction between consumer and wholesale trade

That would cover online shoppers for goods to a defined value and or volume limit and also retailers that are supplied from distribution centres in Britain for sale to consumers from their stores in NI.

The problem is that these transactions are treated in the same way that a container ship with 1,000t of beef or grain would be treated.

The rules are designed for high-volume sales, not consumer goods in a just-in-time supply chain.

If the EU accepts that the rules need to be modified, then there is basis for a long-term arrangement that satisfies the long-term needs of both the EU and the UK if a risk-based approach is adopted.

The silence from the negotiations suggests that imaginative and creative solutions are being contemplated.

This forum is the best chance of success because when these complex discussions move into the political arena, the chances of a solution reduce.

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