The Northern Ireland Protocol: Will the UK and the EU ever agree?

By RAVI MAINI

The Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol has become a point of contention again. This agreement, signed between the United Kingdom and the European Union, came into force at the start of 2021. In basic terms, it was intended to address two key problems following the UK’s departure from the EU in January 2020. Firstly, the need to prevent a ‘hard border’ with controls on free movement of goods between NI and the Republic. Both sides agreed that the imposition of any sort of border between the North and South would be a clear violation of the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, which ended decades of conflict across the sectarian divide. Secondly, the EU asserted the importance of upholding the integrity of its single market, which, following Brexit, begins at the Irish border. Ever since the agreement of the Protocol there has been strong opposition to it in its current state, notably from unionist leaders in NI, and a number of supposed flaws and oversights.


One of the most troubling realities of the Protocol for the unionist community is their concern that it has created an invisible border down the Irish Sea due to differing regulatory standards. This stems from the fact that NI continues to follow EU rules on goods whilst the rest of the UK does not, thus requiring the imposition of customs checks on most goods being exported from Great Britain to Belfast, including food and pets. Quite evidently, this has angered many unionists who are highly reluctant to accept a sort of de facto border within what is the same country.


It was only a few months ago in April of this year that Belfast was plagued by weeks of riots, partly in response to opposition to differential treatment for NI from the rest of the UK. Amongst the most vocal critics of the protocol is Lord David Frost, who recently told the Conservative Party Conference in a speech that "we need significant change”. This in regards to the agreement that, as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh has pointed out, he “negotiated every single word of”. If this Conservative government’s Brexit deal was supposed to be ‘oven-ready’ in time for the 2019 General Election, its plans for NI seems awfully inedible.


Moreover, despite successive ‘grace periods’ granted by the EU regarding full enforcement of customs rules on GB-NI trade, it seems that the two sides have, until recently, made little meaningful progress. One of the main sore points has been over some goods, notably chilled sausages (as per the example thrown around by politicians over the past few months) not being able to enter the EU’s single market from a non-EU country (the UK), and by default not into NI either. This ‘sausage war’, as it has become increasingly known in the media, culminated in Johnson challenging Macron at the G7 summit on his reaction if Toulouse sausages could not be sold in Paris, to which the French President is said to have inaccurately replied that the comparison could not be made, as Northern Ireland is not part of the UK. The UK Government is also insistent that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in enforcing the rules of the Protocol should be brought to an end, although the EU is unlikely to sign up to this anytime soon.


As far as possible solutions are concerned, European Commission Vice-President Maros Šefčovič has recently announced considerable relaxations in the EU’s previous insistence on customs enforcement on goods travelling from Great Britain to NI. It is expected that around 80% of current customs spot checks would be halted under the new EU proposals, coupled with an estimated 50% reduction in customs paperwork for business exporters. The EU have also proposed changing laws to allow medicines to move more easily from Britain across the Irish Sea and into NI. Whilst the EU has been keen to show that it is pursuing "a different model" with these proposals, it is still unclear how this will be received with British negotiators, especially Lord Frost, who is said to want to stand his ground on British demands for significant change to the Protocol. In fact, to complicate things further, it was just this Tuesday that he proposed plans for an entirely new protocol to replace the seemingly doomed existing one.


Amidst all of this rhetoric we must not forget the impact of such uncertainty regarding the Protocol on the people of NI. In July, The Chair of Marks & Spencer warned that when the current grace period on full enforcement ends, branches in NI will have gaps on the shelves. This comes amidst confirmation that the retailer is having to delist some Christmas products from NI “because it’s simply not worth the risk of trying to get it through.” Not only does this signal increased costs for businesses, but the potential, and even likelihood, at some point for higher import costs to be passed on to Northern Irish consumers.


As the UK Government ponders over the latest EU proposals, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the Protocol will survive in its present state. As Lord Frost gives speeches and interviews denouncing the very arrangements he negotiated, it’s none other than the people of Northern Ireland who are feeling the real-world impact of this post-Brexit mess.



Image: Unsplash (K. Mitch Hodge)