EU-UK fail to agree new rules for medicines in Northern Ireland

LONDON — The fifth week of EU-U.K. talks on post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland concluded without the progress on medicines and customs controls Brussels had hoped for.

Despite an attempt by the European Commission to intensify the talks, the latest round concluded with the two sides still far apart.

The EU had this week wanted to agree how to guarantee the supply of drugs to Northern Ireland from Great Britain in the hope this would act as a catalyst for solutions in other areas.

The Commission expressed frustration about the lack of concrete proposals from the U.K. in response to its October package, which Brussels considers a significant move but London says it is insufficient.

“It is essential that the recent change in tone now leads to joint tangible solutions in the framework of the protocol,” Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said in a statement after meeting his U.K. counterpart David Frost.

Medicines was one area that appeared more constructive but a U.K. official said “there are still issues to resolve.”

In October, the Commission confirmed it would modify EU legislation to allow Great Britain to continue to act as a hub for the supply of generic medicines to Northern Ireland — not possible under the current protocol. The proposal removes the need for drug manufacturers based in Great Britain to relocate infrastructure to Northern Ireland, which some had worried would deter companies from offering their drugs in the region.

However, the U.K. believes the EU plan does not find a solution for certain medicines, such as new cancer drugs, which must be licensed by the European Medicines Agency before they can be sold in Northern Ireland. Instead, London has proposed removing all medicines from the scope of the protocol.

“Any acceptable solution needs to ensure that medicines are available at the same time and on the same basis across the whole of the U.K.,” Frost said.

Britain’s call for more concessions in this area is fueling impatience in Brussels, with Šefčovič warning this is “a real test for political goodwill.”

Brussels wants to push through a deal in this area by the end of the year, when a grace period allowing medicines to flow between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is due to end.

Talks have also hit a wall over customs paperwork and food-safety checks, so-called sanitary and phytosanitary controls.

The EU and the U.K. continued to exchange threats, albeit in a much less combative tone. Earlier, U.K. cabinet minister Michael Gove said “we’re confident that we’ll be able to make progress without [triggering Article 16],” a reference to the legal mechanism that would unilaterally suspend parts of the deal temporarily.

London remains under pressure from Northern Ireland’s unionists to suspend the protocol if Brussels continues to demand checks on goods arriving from Great Britain into the region’s ports. Accusing the EU of “intransigence,” the Democratic Unionist Party’s Leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the negotiators were still “tinkering around the edges.”

The discussions will continue next week in London, where Šefčovič and Frost will take stock again on Friday.



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