Although by instinct I prefer to hunt for the substance behind political attitudes however perverse they seem, I’m reduced to calling the latest on the Protocol – bonkers, plain and not so simple. The Tory leadership fight has tipped it into the surreal.
First in a dash to complete his legacy, Johnson rushed to complete the Protocol Bill’s early Commons stages on the last full day on Thursday. Then it’s over to Lords in September and a new government.
Rivals Sunak’s and Truss’s vows to persist with the Bill are matched by a competition over which of them can rip up the remaining EU legislation over the next couple of years. These laws hold much of business regulation together until there’s time to introduce bespoke UK versions. The promised destruction neatly fits into ripping up most of the Protocol, which the Bill now allows.
As the Institute for Government has critiqued, the Bill gives the UK government exclusive powers to regulate GB- NI and NI-EU trade in any direction, eliminating if it judges it necessary, any EU control at all. It therefore eats into the general Withdrawal Agreement.
It will disapply huge swathes of the Northern Ireland Protocol and parts of the Withdrawal Agreement in UK domestic law, breaching the terms of the treaty it agreed with the EU just two-and-a-half years ago. It will also give ministers broad powers to replace parts of the protocol with the government’s own arrangements with limited parliamentary oversight and, at this point, little detail as to how they will be used.
A 10-page document setting out the UK government’s ‘solution’, which accompanied the publication of the bill, was notably thin in detail.
The dual regulatory regime – allowing goods sold in NI to comply with UK or EU law – will make it easier for GB businesses to supply NI. But the Northern Ireland dairy and meat industries have raised concerns that this approach could create a whole new range of problems for them, with the risk that their products would not be acceptable in the EU creating barriers to cross-border trade on the island of Ireland.
These proposals have potential, but they are far from ready to be implemented – and without some degree of EU buy-in, will never be able to provide a long-term alternative to the protocol.
For all the government’s talk of the need for ‘cross-community support’, this latest act clearly does not meet that test. All parties acknowledge that changes to the operation of the protocol are necessary. The government is right to make a strong case to the EU, but unilateral action will not provide the certainty and stability needed to allow Northern Ireland politics to move forward.
If you were the EU you could hardly imagine such a blatant piece of provocation. Sure enough the EU Commission after consulting the German and French leadership accepted the challenge.
In a spirit of constructive cooperation, the Commission refrained from launching certain infringement procedures for over a year to create the space to look for joint solutions with the UK. However, the UK’s unwillingness to engage in meaningful discussion since last February and the continued passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through the UK Parliament go directly against this spirit.”
In their announcement the Commission list 4 issues which they consider to be examples of failures warranting the four infringements.
Failing to comply with the applicable customs requirements, supervision requirements and risk controls on the movement of goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
– Failing to notify the transposition of EU legislation laying down general EU rules on excise duties, which will become applicable from 13 February 2023
– Failing to notify the transposition of EU rules on excise duties on alcohol and alcoholic beverages, which facilitate access for small and artisan producers to lower excise duty rates, among other provisions.
– Failing to implement EU rules on Value Added Tax (VAT) for e-commerce, namely the Import One-Stop Shop (IOSS).
This suggests that the EU is fed up with kicking the can down the road. It is even withdrawing mooted concessions.
The EU response means that the DUP will even more wary about a return to Stormont. A new political crisis over a trade war and the real threat of hard border would hardly to be the right moment to resume cooperation with incandescent nationalists, if the worst were to happen.
Perhaps there is just a tremor in the united front of resolve? As the FT reported
Sunak resisted the Northern Ireland protocol bill while in cabinet, warning it could lead to reprisals from the EU. But the former chancellor on Monday assured members of the European Research Group, the pro-Brexit club of Tory MPs, at a private meeting that he would allow the bill to pass unamended, according to attendees. One ally of Sunak said: “Rishi would let the bill go through, but there would be a different tone.” Sunak’s spokeswoman declined to comment.
One steep route to sanity here is that if the Bill finally passes and the EU accepts its terms, the DUP will return to Stormont. But the EUs response is clear; they won’t offer any concessions if a Protocol Act goes live. Another is if the Act is suspended pending meaningful or negotiations. But which leader in this atmosphere would risk it with the party?
For it’s all about much more than Northern Ireland of course. The Protocol Bill is the big virility symbol for Brexiteers. Rathlin’s own Kate Hooey has a big voice among those who believe the EU is bluffing because it’s on the point of collapse.
The thing about virility symbols is the terrible anti climax when they let you down.
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