“Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance” were the respondent words of the EU Commission’s Vice-President, Maros Šefčovič. His words rang true in the wake of the latest chapter in the Johnson Ministry’s efforts in Getting Brexit Done.
Earlier this week, the UK’s Chief Negotiator for Task Force Europe, Lord Frost, stated that the British Government wished to renegotiate the Brexit Divorce Agreement which came into effect at the start of this year. The deal itself had been — as we all painfully remember — under negotiation by the EU and UK since 2017. Speaking to the House of Lords, Frost expressed the belief that the current negotiated relationship between Brussel and Westminster was “damaging the fabric of the UK”. Interestingly, it’s not the fabric of the UK which so thinly ties Scotland, England, and Wales together; instead, despite the firm assurances from the Prime Minister, Leader of the House of Commons, and other senior ministers for the past five years, the fabric being so expectantly damaged is the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Since the start of this year, Northern Ireland’s supermarket aisles have been the focus of much media attention. From Bread shortages at the start of the year, to M&S’s threat of retreat this coming Christmas, the trading relationship between Britain, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland has been at the centre of Brexit’s key shortcomings. Because of this, the UK Government has sought a few changes to the agreement which it negotiated and — ironically — described as “Oven ready”. The main focus of the Government’s sought after reforms is checks on goods travelling from Britain to Belfast. Presently, all goods which travel out of the UK mainland and into Northern Ireland are subject to the same checks faced by goods travelling to mainland EU; this is part of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). A means to the ends of maintaining a peaceful, open border on the island of Ireland, the NIP meant that Northern Ireland effectively remained in the EU’s customs union, whilst the rest of the UK went its own way. Now, however, the UK Government wants all of the UK to go its own way, despite having agreed this would not be the case last year.
The main alteration the UK Government want is to remove customs checks on goods produced by British businesses which have declared that Northern Ireland will be their final destination. This seems all well and good, but isn’t a plausible solution. Whilst the deregulation of goods travelling from one part of the UK to another seems reasonable, the Irish border makes this an impossibility. The main fear is that just because goods are labelled as only to be sold in Northern Ireland, this won’t stop the goods themselves from travelling across the open border. Much like Theresa May’s non-existent technological solution to trade across the border, the deregulation of goods out of the UK and into the EU is never going to happen; in this case, it’s because of the EU’s core protectionist economic policies. The UK Government wants to allow labelled goods conforming to UK standards and regulations to be freely circulated alongside EU goods but, much like any agreement, all parties involved have to be satisfied by the results; in this case, only the UK would be set to benefit.
How have politicians responded?
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a solemn reminder of Northern Ireland’s violent history. Rather than seeing Northern Ireland as a potentially prosperous market — much like how the EU and UK both viewed the Baltic states after the collapse of the USSR —, the blinkered sight of Westminster and Brussels sees Northern Ireland as little more than ‘that place where the bombs were’. This fear-of-1972 approach to dealing with Northern Ireland in the Brexit process has meant that the open border, maintaining security, ensuring the wishes of the Good Friday/Belfast generation are upheld, etc, etc are perhaps the only things on the To-Do list of Brexit negotiations.
Thankfully, despite this overlording dim view of Northern Ireland, our domestic politicians have focused on the central issue of the current agreement; the economy. Whilst Frost made clear his fears were economic, he made clearer that his views were Unionist too. In Stormont’s chamber, however, the economic damage of the Northern Ireland Protocol has allowed the Unionist and Nationalist benches to become divided over something other than Europe itself. Speaking to the Assembly earlier this week, the fresh leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, expressed a welcome view that the UK Government acknowledges the economic damage caused by the NIP:
“The barriers and distortion to trade within the UK internal market brought about by [the Northern Ireland Protocol] must be swept away and not replaced”.
Additionally, after speaking virtually with the EU Commission’s Vice-President, Maros Šefčovič, Sir Jeffrey stated his continued ambition to see the NIP abolished, and the Brexit deal renegotiated. He stated after speaking with Vice-President Šefčovič:
“My message was simple. The Protocol has not worked”.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s Brexit Spokesperson, Declan Kearney, stated that they wanted the UK Government to “stop the evasion” and “get on” with delivering on their Brexit commitments. He further stated:
“It is not acceptable for the Tories to adopt an a la carte approach towards the Protocol, to rewrite history, and now attempt a renegotiation”.
All this comes with the over-looming possibility of an early Stormont election, with both major parties cautious that the current assembly is too divided and unstable in the wake of the DUP’s internal civil war, which resulted in the termination of Edwin Poots’s brief stay as leader of the party his father helped to found.
What happens now?
Like many Brexit related issues, the best way summary can be found in Graham Norton’s appearance on RTE’s the Late Late Show all the way back in 2018. Speaking in front of a live audience with host Ryan Tubridy in London, Norton quipped that about Brexit “…there is something very British about it” before quipping “I said I was hungry enough to eat my foot, so I’m going to ear my foot!”.
This play on British stubborn stereotypes, despite its joviality, is likely to be how Brexit negotiations, conversations, and disassociations continue in the short future. Whilst the two parties, the UK and the EU, have recognised the shortcomings within the NIP, the EU itself has stated clearly that it will not be open for renegotiation. Vice-President Šefčovič stated, however, that the EU did wish to “seek creative solutions within the framework of the Protocol”. More — undoubtedly — to follow.