The European Commission's latest offer to end the stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol is welcome as far as it goes. It involves reduced customs checks on goods travelling between the British mainland and the Province. Red tape has led suppliers to choose different markets, and to a consequent increase in north-south commerce in Ireland. The rules have proved to be a particular barrier to the trade in chilled meats and other fresh products, which the EU does not want getting into the single market by the back door.
But this has exposed a much bigger issue than the supply of particular goods. While the EU sees the row in trade terms, the British also consider it to be a constitutional matter. Nowhere in the EU offer is there a recognition of the need to remove the European Court from adjudicating on trade matters concerning Northern Ireland.
The Unionists see this as the most critical point to resolve and in his speech in Lisbon this week , Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, appeared to agree. Ministers are insisting there are no "red lines" in the negotiations. It must also be said that the Prime Minister signed up to the Trade and Co-operation Agreement knowing that it changed the status of Northern Ireland within the UK by keeping it, to all intents and purposes, within the EU single market and customs union.
The UK wanted to resolve difficulties through independent arbitration rather than the European Court but that was rejected. It is hard to see what the EU would lose by agreeing to such a system. The EU wants the existing protocol to work better; the Government wants it replaced with another set of arrangements. Can a middle way be found?
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