The EU is proposing that a 50% cut in customs formalities on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland become a legal obligation, RTÉ News understands.

EU negotiators want the offer to be legally enshrined in a formal co-decision with the UK in order to remove any doubt that the offer to cut customs formalities is meaningful.

The Northern Ireland Protocol requires checks and controls on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland so as to avoid the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The UK and unionists want the Protocol to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether because of the disruption to trade and the impact on the unionist sense of identity.

The UK's chief negotiator David Frost has so far dismissed the EU's offer to cut formalities by 50%, arguing that it would not represent a significant cut in the process of moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

EU's chief negotiator Maroš Šefcovic

However, in talks this week in Brussels the EU has proposed a legal text that would be formally adopted by the EU-UK Joint Committee, that would put the 50% cut on a legal footing.

The Joint Committee was set up under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to manage the implementation of the Protocol.

Last December a series of grace periods and flexibilities on the flow of agrifood products from GB to Northern Ireland were given legal weight by a decision of the Joint Committee, negotiated by the EU's chief negotiator Maroš Šefcovic and Lord Frost's predecessor Michael Gove.

Mr Šefcovic has proposed a similar approach for the cut in customs requirements, it is understood.

Alleviate scepticism

An EU proposal to make custom cuts a legal obligation would help alleviate UK scepticism, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

Speaking in the Dáil, Minister Coveney said he believed UK negotiators were unsure as to whether the EU's offer to cut customs formalities was genuine, as he expressed hope that the change of tone in negotiations would continue.

Whilst Ireland is hopeful that a triggering of Article 16 can be avoided, Minister Coveney told Fianna Fáil's Jim O'Callaghan that such a scenario would have to be prepared for.

Mr Coveney warned that such a move would be very damaging for relations between the UK and EU and would also "strain relationships" with Washington.

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Sources say the EU has accepted that a large component of goods traffic moving across the Irish Sea can be regarded as regular and routine, and that in due course the customs data would show that this trade flow does not pose a risk of entering the single market across the border to the south.

These consignments would flow through "green" lanes at Northern Ireland ports and on to their destinations.

(File image: Rolling News)

However, the EU is arguing that ongoing and proper risk analysis, and real time access to UK customs databases, would show if there are consignments which may pose a risk.

"The 50% of goods that are being checked would be ones that are a result of the analysis of the data sets and would give rise to a need to find out what is in those consignments," says one source familiar with the negotiations.

"In the legal text the EU would be prepared to go so far as to specify the percentages. So the percentages would actually become legal obligations and not just informal targets. They would become enshrined in a new decision [of the Joint Committee]."

On 8 November, Lord Frost told the House of Lords: "The famous 50% figure is actually a 50% reduction in the number of fields in the customs declaration, with most of the significant ones still remaining it is not a 50% elimination of process."

EU sources dispute this, and say the offer to enshrine the percentages in a Joint Committee decision, which would have legal weight, should show that the EU is serious about reducing the level of checks.

Britain's Brexit minister David Frost

However, there would be conditions attached to the offer. These include the need for Border Control Posts at Northern Ireland ports to be completed, and a commitment from the UK to grant the EU full access to UK customs data, so any potential risks relating to goods can be properly assessed and acted upon.

"You're basically talking about, for the most part, trucks with loads going to retail outlets, that are travelling all the time," a source said.

"People become quite familiar with them, they just go through. But then scanning the data they might see a load that's unusual, something that gives rise to some question, that may be checked because it looks like it's a risk. So you still need facilities to check and control.

"But the checks and controls will be far more risk-based than simply having to check every single load."

The UK, by contrast, has said that any goods clearly going to the south via Northern ports should be checked, while there should be no checks for any goods clearly staying in Northern Ireland.

According to the UK Command Paper, published in July, traders would be responsible for ensuring compliance with this model, according to an "honesty box" principle.

However, the EU has said that this model would not be implementable, and that traders alone could not be relied upon to protect the integrity of the single market.

Mr Frost and Maroš Šefcovic will hold another meeting in Brussels tomorrow.