Brexit breakthrough on the protocol? Try this for size

If you’re  one of those souls who follow every twist and turn of Stormont politics, there’s one thing you shouldn’t overlook; that  sorting out the Brexit rows which are stoking division are largely  beyond local control. Another is what Newton reminded us recently, that  Stormont  boycott is now  a risky strategy. The Executive can stagger on for the best part of a year in the absence of one leading party – guess who? –  but with an election somewhere along the line: not ideal but possible. It’s also wrong to think that on the great existential, nothing has shifted, as a shrewd correspondent to the Irish Times Paul from Gregory Campbell’s native “Doire” (sic) neatly pointed out:

The significance of the comments made by Gregory Campbell MP to Claire Byrne on RTÉ has been somewhat overlooked. Although delivered in his trademark style, his acceptance that unionism is now one of three minorities in an “Ulster” that is as Irish as it is British represents a recognition on the part of the DUP that the political landscape has changed fundamentally.

PAUL LAUGHLIN,

Doire.

If the DUP have a strategy at all aside from blaming the media and everyone else except themselves, it is to issue dark warnings of growing loyalist unrest over customs posts and checkpoints at NI harbours. The latest to add his drop of oil is that supporter of preparing for a border poll, Peter Robinson. This hasn’t deflected the secretary of state Brandon Lewis from going over their heads to enforce the controversial new abortion regulations, but without actually doing so yet; so bluffing may be catching. However it is at least possible that DUP pressure is having some effect even on the EU which is hoping for a “roadmap”  from the UK  for skirting the protocol impasse within a few days.

An impressive solution part of it familiar to local business has been produced by Raoul Ruparel who was the prime minister’s special adviser on Europe under Theresa May and was directly involved in Brexit negotiations for three years. I leave it for your edification. Full version in Politico   

 .. If no permanent solution is found, food businesses like supermarkets face significant burdens at the end of the current grace periods which waive checks. The potential disruption centres on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks, which mean traders need export health certificates for many products, including official sign-off from vets.

The time and cost associated will disrupt NI’s food supply chains and have a real impact on everyday life. Yet the two existing ideas for a long-term fix to the SPS problem don’t look viable.

Contradicting  FT, Ruparel says copying the EU’s agreements with Switzerland or New Zealand won’t work

.. we need something new, and there are two potential solutions; one U.K.-wide and one NI-specific. 

While the mechanisms in the TCA (Trade and Cooperation Agreement) are focused on avoiding tariffs, applying these principles for agri-food would make sense. If Britain decided to regress or change its SPS standards, the EU would be free to take remedial measures and reinstitute full certification and checks. Similarly, if the EU instituted new regulations or legislation in SPS areas and the U.K. chose not to follow, the EU could respond. As in the TCA , both actions would be subject to review by an arbitration panel, deciding if the steps were necessary and proportionate.

The judgments would likely focus less on distortion of trade, but on any potential reduction in quality or standards for consumers. The TCA already provides for a rapid response, and the processes should be supplemented by strong domestic enforcement agencies on both sides. It could be tailored to the specific challenges being faced, too. For example, checks on live animals between GB and NI are working relatively well and were present to some extent before Brexit, so these could continue.

This solution essentially means minimal to no barriers on agri-food trade, but still lets the U.K. diverge in the future if it wants to. It would look similar to the Swiss agreement on the ground — and arguably offer even more protection for the EU by having a clear, rapid resolution mechanism in place as opposed to the woolly political mechanisms of the Swiss pact.

It also has the advantage of not requiring any changes to EU law. The U.K. would be meeting the requirements under EU law while gaining the benefits of the agreement, and if it stopped meeting those requirements, it would stop gaining the benefits.

NI-specific plan

If that U.K.-wide solution is not desirable, there’s another plan, and this one is NI-specific

Such an approach has already been floated by Northern Ireland business groups. Essentially, it would extend the concept of goods being deemed “at risk” of being sold in the EU from just tariffs and rules of origin now to include agri-food regulations. If there’s no risk goods will be sold on, they would be exempt from agri-food requirements.

If Britain and the EU agree to extend grace periods until the end of the year, and, crucially, set up extensive monitoring and data sharing, it will bolster confidence in such a plan. Firms who have consistent data to prove their goods are only sold in NI should qualify for waivers from the end of the grace periods.

Many on the EU side will ask why they should agree to either of these. Yet no one can predict what rejecting proposals like these will mean in the long term. The Northern Ireland protocol has a consent mechanism built in, meaning it ultimately rests on the support of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be a brave person indeed who would predict how Northern Irish politics will develop over the next four years, given the tensions already surfacing.

The EU took on commitments and responsibilities for both communities in Northern Ireland when it agreed to the protocol, and this is not simply a U.K. or Irish issue. The protocol promises to “impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.” This applies not just to disruption to life across the border with Ireland, but to Northern Ireland’s place as part of the United Kingdom. It’s hard to see how that’s being met under the current approach.

These proposals are not about scrapping or removing the protocol, but ensuring it is both fair and sustainable. If they don’t work or if the U.K. chooses to diverge, the worst case scenario is we end up where we started, albeit with a store of goodwill for the EU from Northern Ireland’s unionists, something which is sorely lacking at the moment.

British politicians should listen too. The U.K. is arguably in the worst of all worlds when it comes to SPS regulations, aligned with the EU while being treated entirely like any other third country. By taking the U.K.-wide approach Britain can bank the benefits of smooth trade, while maintaining the right to do something different in the future if it wishes. Neither approach would stop the U.K. agreeing a trade deal with the U.S. or joining the CPTPP trading pact. And the plans could help address the 75 percent year-on-year fall in U.K. food and drink exports to the EU seen in January.

I am under no illusion that reaching such an agreement will be easy given trust between the two sides is so low, something only exacerbated by the U.K.’s unilateral actions. But both sides made commitments to the people of Northern Ireland and promised to consider pragmatic solutions. It’s time to back that up with action.