So, there’s some actual news today. My guess is that the EU’s announcement today of the compromises it’s prepared to make. Although much of it is still unquantified, the scope of the pragmatic changes are impressively wide.
Some provisions, like medicines, are technically difficult to achieve and will take much more time, but the direction of travel seems to be in the direction seems to be freeing up distribution between Britain and Northern Ireland.
There has barely been any acknowledgement that this was a problem for ordinary folk from non unionists. One case I heard of was white goods retailer in NI forced to pay a large surcharge on the return of product from a customer in GB.
Ask yourself why the GB NI trade interface accounts for 20% of all EU product checks? It’s because it’s an internal border for a complex consumer trade that rarely crosses international borders. In other words, it was unsustainable.
It remains to be seen as to how much actual impact the removal of about 80% of spot checks and cutting customs paperwork by 50% will have on day to day trade. As Coleraine based Andrew Lynas told the BBC:
There’s just a lot of hassle and complexity and when you talk to a supplier in GB, they don’t fully understand all the bits of that paperwork.
On one level, this may be the EU bowing to the inevitable. Unionists will claim it as a victory of principle (against those who said it could not be changed), if not the final victory it needs. At the very least, it’s politics being seen to operate.
Some credit for the movement should probably go to the European Commission’s Maros Šefčovič, who is generally held to be a convivial interlocutor and who appears to have engaged successfully with all the parties at Stormont.
The other impact player is the Taoiseach, whose pragmatic approach has favoured stable and quiet negotiations over the loud dramatisations of his predecessor and his still ongoing “never trust the Brits” output even as Tanaiste.
It is true that negotiations were largely between the UK government and the EU, but in every practical stage, the Irish government were given an internal veto over any final settlement. But in fact it is all very far from over.
However this is just the start of the next negotiations. The EC proposals are ambiguous enough to require work on the nitty gritty. If all it amounts to is giving trusted trader status for big distributors, small business may still suffer badly.
This is surely one reason the DUP leader’s response has been so cool? But as Bruno Waterfield has noted in the London Times this morning:
Since it came into operation almost a year ago, the EU has insisted the Northern Ireland protocol was not open for renegotiation.
But yesterday, in four papers, Brussels set out proposals that could alter the arrangements and open the door to solving the most intractable of the Brexit problems.
So, more tractable than before. The ECJ issue is tricky, with no obvious/elegant solution. It may be that the EU hopes that in posing an open settlement on practical issues they’ve put the scope for negotiation of the ECJ out of bounds.
As SDLP Ag spokesman Patsy McGlone pointed out in the most recent Assembly debate on SPS, the EU has a duty of care as far as the Single Market is concerned, not just in the here and now but in the face of future changes in UK law.
He goes on to note that…
…agreement between the EU and the British Government to align sanitary and phytosanitary standards for goods is a realistic and practical way to resolve concerns about the levels of checks and paperwork involved in importing goods from Britain.
The British Government’s recent Command Paper from July leaves open the possibility of an appropriately designed SPS agreement, setting out where UK and EU SPS legislation provided for the same high standards.
It allows for providing a means to identify areas of significant difference, where the level of risk- based controls might need to be higher.
So, it is possible that agreement could be found between the British Government and the EU to align those standards.
Right now, we seem to be at the stage where the EU is saying it needs that power, but maybe won’t use it. On the upside, that looks to me like a recognition that the chance of GB originated goods of causing real damage is slight.
There are other provisions for arbitration, short of the ECJ. Perhaps it will end up akin to the powers of the monarchy (like sacking the Australian PM, or knocking back primary legislation) that’s important to own but is never good to use.
In this sense, NI’s diminutive size and (economically speaking) its easy forget-ability, may be a winning trump card.
Finally, as Peter Foster notes, that the EU has moved, but within some very close limits. And Bruno again:
The EU has kept the door open to a solution [on the ECJ] and the UK has not threatened to strip the court out of the protocol.
So calm down folks, it ain’t over till it’s over. And it ain’t over yet. Not by a long way.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty