As expected, on Tuesday the European Commission presented a detailed bespoke arrangement for trade in goods between Britain and Northern Ireland (NI) that aims to solve the problems being experienced by businesses in NI while protecting the integrity of the single market.
The proposed agreement from Brussels covers four key areas: sanitary and phytosanitary controls; customs; medicines and engagement with Northern Ireland stakeholders and authorities.
This came two days after the UK's chief negotiator David Frost said “fixing the very serious problem we have in the Northern Ireland Protocol is a prerequisite for getting to a better place”.
It is a substantial move on the part of the EU, which Commission vice-president Maros Šefcovic said is a genuine response to the concerns of stakeholders in NI.
The Commission has proposed an NI-specific solution covering agri-food products.
Businesses importing products of animal origin into NI from Britain will no longer be subject to the same level of controls, with 80% of the physical checks previously required now removed.
The impact of the proposed arrangement would see a truck transporting different food products now just need one certificate detailing all good of different types or class as opposed to individual certificates.
Certain products that are generally prohibited from import into the EU, such as sausages, will now be allowed into NI from Britain, with specific labelling indicating that they are for sale in the UK only.
This is in addition to the solutions put forward by the EU in June to facilitate the movement of live animals from Britain to NI.
Measures that simplify customs formalities and processes are proposed which will reduce by 50% the necessary paperwork to facilitate the movement of goods from Britain to NI.
NI businesses buying goods from Britain would now only need to provide basic information (invoice and parties to the transaction) for customs clearance.
In addition, NI supermarkets that rely on distribution centres in Britain will see their customs formalities reduced to a minimum.
The proposal would result in uninterrupted supply of medicines from Britain to NI for the long term by making it easier for wholesalers based in Britain to supply NI from their current location in Britain.
This is a change for pharmaceutical companies which faced the prospect of moving regulatory functions to NI or the EU.
The EU has proposed enhanced engagement with authorities, business and community stakeholders in NI to support application of the protocol.
The scale of the EU proposal is likely to have taken some, even within the UK government, by surprise.
NI business leaders have cautiously welcomed the proposed agreement, no doubt waiting to digest the full detail and what it will mean for business.
However, just as the EU got to the point of proposing an arrangement that addresses most business concerns and that minimises disruption to the UK internal market, the UK made a major issue out of the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Negotiations will take place over the next number of months, informally beginning this week in Brussels where the issue of UK ‘sovereignty’ and the ECJ will balance against not just the NI protocol, but the Trade and Co-operation Agreement itself.
Stakeholders in NI will be considering the unique status afforded to them, effectively unrestricted access that they will have to both the UK internal market and the EU single market.
Farmers and exporters will be hoping that the EU proposals will be sufficient to move towards a deal. However, it all remains in the balance.