Maroš Šefčovič says the EU wants to conclude a post-Brexit deal Friday with the U.K. to keep medicines flowing freely into Northern Ireland — but is ready to move ahead on its own to ensure that happens.
Šefčovič, the EU commissioner leading talks with the U.K. over the Northern Ireland trade protocol, told lawmakers in Belfast on Wednesday he shared their sense of worry that hundreds of British medical products soon could stop being distributed to Northern Ireland because they do not meet EU regulatory requirements.
He said he hoped to reach a joint agreement that resolves the problem during a meeting Friday with the U.K. lead negotiator, David Frost.
The protocol, agreed as part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, keeps Northern Ireland within the EU single market for goods — and still subject to European standards on medicines. While many British goods subject to new checks at Northern Irish ports can be sourced from the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere in the EU, that is not the case for medicines, many of which are bulk purchased and distributed through the U.K.’s National Health Service.
The U.K. and EU agreed to a one-year waiver on enforcing EU standards on medicines shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland, a grace period due to expire January 1.
Citing unacceptably high regulatory costs, British generic drugmakers already have notified Northern Ireland’s Department of Health they will stop shipping more than 2,000 product lines by that date if the legal impasse isn’t broken.
Šefčovič, who spoke to the Northern Ireland Assembly by video link from Brussels, told lawmakers that resolving the medicines supply problem had been top of his negotiating agenda for the past four weeks, adding that his side had submitted proposals to the U.K. pledging to pass new EU legislation as part of broader solutions in late June and mid-October.
During the session, Šefčovič said the European Commission was ready to move ahead with legislation changing the EU’s rules relevant to Northern Ireland’s supply chain for British medicines.
“I know time is running out and I will push again this Friday in the discussion with Lord Frost to solve this matter. At the same time, I also have to be very, very clear that we are ready to move on our own if that should be not possible to push at this stage on the joint approach,” Šefčovič said.
Šefčovič cited “extensive consultations” with British and EU drugmakers, who have offered guarded approval for the EU’s proposed legislative blueprint to keep medical shipments flowing uninterrupted to Northern Ireland.