The British government has indicated it is seeking a "standstill period" to negotiate major changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the element of the Brexit trade agreement intended to avoid the return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The British minister with responsibility for relations with the EU, David Frost, has said that the protocol is not sustainable and that the UK government is seeking for existing grace periods on Northern Ireland to be maintained.
Mr Frost said: "At the same time (as discussions) we must provide certainty and stability for businesses as we do so.
"So we believe that we and the EU should also quickly agree a standstill period, as it were, including maintaining the operation of grace periods in force and a freeze on existing legal actions and processes.
"This is to ensure there is room to negotiate and provide a genuine signal of good intent to find ways forward."
Mr Frost said the proposals will require a "significant change" of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He told peers: "These proposals will require a significant change to the Northern Ireland Protocol, we do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face. We look to open a discussion on these proposals urgently."
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefcovic said the EU will seek "creative solutions" to difficulties in trade between Britain and Northern Ireland caused by Brexit, but will not renegotiate the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said Ireland will closely analyse British proposals to reduce trade frictions between Britain and Northern Ireland, but any solution must remain within the terms of a deal agreed with the EU last year.
Mr Frost urged Brussels to look at his new plans for Northern Ireland with "fresh eyes".
He said: "We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and to work with us to seize this opportunity and to put our relationships onto a better footing. We stand ready to work with them to deliver the brighter future which is in reach."
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis also called for a "standstill period" in the House of Commons today.
"We believe we should also quickly agree a standstill period"@BrandonLewis says the UK is seeking a "standstill period" where existing grace periods on Northern Ireland are maintained, to "ensure there is room to negotiate" and find ways forward | More: https://t.co/YCKUWzEQH3 pic.twitter.com/nCmRrRTT2Y— RTÉ News (@rtenews) July 21, 2021
In a video call with Taoiseach Micheál Martin yesterday, Prime Minster Boris Johnson shared his ideas on how the protocol should be changed.
Statements made to the British House of Commons by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis today, and in the House of Lords by Mr Frost, had been expected to call for an end to virtually all checks on goods made in Britain intended for sale in Northern Ireland.
Reports had indicated the British side would also indicate a willingness to use a clause in the protocol known as Article 16, allowing either side to stop applying the protocol's provisions if matters are not resolved by this autumn.
In the House of Lords today, Mr Frost said it was "clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16" of the Protocol.
"Nevertheless, we have concluded that it is not the right moment to do so," he said.
The British government published a document today setting out three "fundamental concerns" that must be addressed regarding the Protocol.
"First, they need to look at ways of removing the burdens on trade in goods within the UK while managing the real risks to the EU Single Market," it says.
To do this it calls for both sides to "streamline trade and avoid controls at Northern Ireland ports and airports".
And "applying the same principle of differentiation" of destination, it says goods made to UK rules and regulated by UK authorities should be able to circulate freely in NI as long as they remain in the region.
"Thirdly, we should look to normalise the governance basis of the Protocol so that the relationship between the UK and the EU is not ultimately policed by the EU institutions including the Court of Justice," the document says.
"As part of this, we also need to find ways of ensuring that institutions representing Northern Ireland can be more deeply involved in shaping and bringing into force legislation which binds Northern Ireland."
'A significant step'
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson described the British government's announcement on the Northern Ireland Protocol as a "significant step".
"This is a significant step in the right direction by the government and an acceptance that the Protocol is not sustainable," he said.
He said: "The Prime Minister must continue at pace to remove the Irish Sea Border, which is fracturing the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.
"The rigid refusal by Brussels to even consider renegotiation of the Protocol is symptomatic of how we reached this point.
"The EU has failed to recognise the concerns of unionists and has shown zero respect for the consensus approach which has helped secure peace and stability in Northern Ireland."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told the House of Commons that this was the British government's "second attempt in a week to distance itself from agreements that they have negotiated".
He said: "Why does he think that any other country, or any person in Northern Ireland, will trust anything that this Government says from this day forward?"
The opposition Labour party has accused Boris Johnson's government of "more political brinkmanship".
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh told the House of Commons that the government's plans had "destroyed trust" in the UK.
She said: "It has destroyed trust in the UK Government, an essential component of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, it has fanned the flames on instability and, as ever, in the middle of this are the communities and businesses of Northern Ireland who have been repeatedly failed."