The alarm has been raised. And while it would be a great mistake to declare it false, it has been followed by calls for calm. The Withdrawal agreement is not about to be torn up and the GFA (according to some interpretations) with it. Rather it’s all about creating smooth passage across the Irish Sea. We’re back at the centre of attention. Really? Surely by signing into national and international law the Withdrawal Agreement with its Ireland/NI Protocol the UK ( or rather GB) had already achieved the goal of becoming “an independent state?” Why revisit leaving NI in the EU for trading in goods and creating the front stop of “the border of the Irish Sea”?
This from the Financial Times’ explainer.
The protocol created the special arrangement for Northern Ireland as a means of solving the riddle of how to prevent a hard economic border on the island of Ireland, but in recent months the extent of the obligations it contained have become increasingly stark. As Lord Frost pushed for an increasingly basic free trade agreement, the gap between Great Britain’s future trading relations with the EU and those of Northern Ireland became wider and wider, with state aid and export summary declarations the two starkest examples.
Negotiators on both sides believed that these differences could be resolved by negotiation, but the chances of a deal receded this summer, and they appear to have lost the argument in Whitehall.
How is the government planning to circumvent the protocol? People familiar with the plans say that the UK’s internal market bill will contradict both treaty obligations arising from the withdrawal agreement. On state aid, the bill is expected to include clauses that very narrowly define the obligation to notify Brussels of subsidy decisions, with the business secretary alone given the powers to decide whether or not to notify the bloc.
Similarly, clauses are expected to say that “notwithstanding” the obligations in the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland businesses will not be required to file export summary declarations when sending goods into Great Britain. Clauses in the autumn finance bill, used to write the chancellor’s Budget into law, will have much the same effect on the potential obligation to collect tariffs on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, according to two people familiar with the plans.
The calming down exercise has already begun. From the Guardian.
George Eustice, the environment minister, claimed that the UK was not ignoring the agreement and that the new law would just tidy up “loose ends” where the agreement was ambiguous. When it was put to him the e government was abandoning a treaty it signed in January, he replied:
No. We are not saying that at all. We have a withdrawal agreement, and that includes Northern Ireland protocol. And we are committed to implementing that.
And there is negotiations ongoing through something called the joint committee process … a separate process to the main negotiation on a future trade agreement.
But, it has always been recognised that that joint committee process was needed to iron out a few remaining technical details as to how the Northern Ireland protocol would work.
And it may well be the case that once that joint committee process itself has concluded there remain one, or two, loose ends where there is a requirement for legal certainty. And where the government may need to legislate to provide that legal clarity and certainty.
Eustice added to Times Radio: … although there would be no customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, there may be some administrative processes for goods transiting through.
Despite the UK ministers bland assurances, the pressures on Dublin are severe, over the balance of east- west trade and the all important land bridge through GB to the continent. So far Dublin’s response has been ultra cautious, just nine words from Foreign minister Coveney ..
This would be a very unwise way to proceed.
Looked at one way, it amounts to blackmail. But Tony Connelly’s sources are putting a brave face on it, calling it the UK’s request for help. His report is worth quoting extensively.
RTÉ News has learned that Britain has been asking Ireland to intercede with the European Commission to be more flexible on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, despite reports that the UK is intending to override key aspects of the protocol.
In return for help, the UK has offered to help Ireland with the issue of the UK land bridge.
The offer has been made via official contacts in recent months. However, Irish sources say they have treated the offer with caution.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and means that Northern Ireland will operate under the EU’s customs and single market rules.
As such, goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to a range of checks and controls and customs formalities as those goods will effectively be entering the EU single market from a third country.
According to a number of senior sources on both sides, London has asked Dublin to urge the European Commission to permit a range of flexibilities on how the checks and controls might be applied.
In return, London has said it would be willing to make it easier for Irish truck drivers to move goods across the UK land bridge from 1 January next year.
Some 80% of Irish exports to the EU rely on the UK land route to European ports via Dover and other exit points.
However, once the Brexit transition period ends in January, Irish hauliers run the risk of being entangled in long queues at British ports, as UK drivers will for the first time have to undergo checks and controls, including customs formalities, when crossing to the EU.
The EU has recognised Ireland’s difficulty in using the land bridge, and member states have formally asked Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to take account of Ireland’s unique geographical position when negotiating a future trading relationship with the UK.
However, the issue has not yet been to the forefront of the EU-UK negotiations.
It is understood that Britain has sought Dublin’s help on aspects of the protocol that are the most sensitive to unionists.
In particular, officials have asked the Irish Government to persuade the European Commission that checks and controls on consignments of food destined for Northern Irish supermarket chains should be carried out at depots within Great Britain, rather than at Northern ports.
They have also asked Dublin to push for checks on live animals to happen at abattoirs, rather than at the Port of Larne.
Under the protocol, so-called Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks and controls on food and agri-food products coming in from Great Britain will require the building of Border Control Posts (BCPs), which in turn must be authorised by the European Commission.
This puts a huge onus on Dublin on how to respond. Which was no doubt partly the intention, to put pressure on the EU at its most vulnerable point.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London