The EU and UK have reaffirmed their joint commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to the full implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol following a meeting this evening of the Joint Committee, which oversees the outworking of the Protocol.
However, a joint statement stopped well short of any significant changes to the Protocol, and it's understood there has been no commitment by the EU to extend the current grace periods which provide a number of derogations from EU food safety rules for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The first grace period ends on 1 April, from which point all food products of animal origin entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would need expensive documentation, in particular export health certificates.
RTÉ News understands, however, that the UK is seeking to develop a plan whereby British supermarkets with Northern Ireland outlets would enhance their own surveillance and traceability systems to the point where, British officials believe, the European Commission could be satisfied that they could approximate EU traceability requirements and remove the need for export health certificates.
It’s understood London is hoping that if the EU were to agree extensions to the grace periods, then the extensions would give the UK time to develop such a system.
However, it’s understood the European Commission has, as yet, given no commitment to extend the grace periods.
EU sources say they do not yet have enough information about the UK proposals.
In a statement, issued after the 90 minute meeting between Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic and UK cabinet office minister Michael Gove, the UK side "noted that it would provide a new operational plan with respect to supermarkets and their suppliers, alongside additional investment in digital solutions for traders in accordance with the Protocol."
EU sources say they have not ruled out an extension to grace periods. However, the European Commission and member states are adamant that no extensions can be entertained until the UK implements an agreement reached between Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic and their teams last December.
Mr Sefcovic has publicly outlined a number of areas where, he says, the UK has not implemented its obligations under the December agreement.
These include failing to give EU officials working at Northern ports real time access to the UK’s customs database, and a significant lack of physical and identity checks of food consignments entering Northern Ireland from GB.
EU sources have also said the grace period exempting supermarkets from the need for export health certificates for food consignments was conditional on the UK giving the Commission a restricted list of larger, trusted operators who would be eligible for the exemptions.
However, one source said the list ran to 2,000 suppliers, a figure that was seen as too high.
The First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland joined the meeting.
It's understood that First Minister Arlene Foster made a number of strong interventions around the European Commission’s move to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol on 29 January.
It’s also understood Ms Foster strongly criticised what she sees as an over emphasis on protecting north-south arrangements to the detriment of Northern Ireland-Great Britain arrangements.
In the statement both sides "acknowledged the importance of joint action to make the Protocol work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland. In that spirit, the EU and UK reiterated their full commitment to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and to the proper implementation of the Protocol".
The Joint Committee also agreed that there would be further meetings with Northern Ireland business groups and other stakeholders.
It’s understood both sides are exploring the possibility of a bilateral veterinary agreement that could conceivably remove many of the trade barriers around animal health and food safety.
Officials say two models could be looked at. One is a Swiss-style agreement, in which there are little or no controls on agrifood products entering the EU from Switzerland, but in return Switzerland aligns itself with EU food safety and animal health rules.
Another model is the EU-New Zealand veterinary agreement, which is based on the notion that both sides operate "equivalent" food safety and animal health regimes.
It’s understood the UK is ruling out a Swiss-style arrangement, while the EU is said to have grave reservations about the New Zealand-style "equivalence" approach.