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The Northern Ireland protocol needs political movement to succeed

The UK and the EU should stop blaming each other for the stalemate on the protocol – and be willing to compromise,

The UK and the EU should stop blaming each other for the stalemate on the protocol – and be willing to compromise, says Jess Sargeant

The future of the Northern Ireland protocol is looking increasingly uncertain. Edwin Poots, the newly elected leader of the DUP, has pledged to "fight" it. David Frost, the UK minister responsible for the protocol, has said it is "not sustainable for long".

UK–EU talks also appear to have reached a stalemate, as the discussions around implementation of EU sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules in Northern Ireland – that create the need for extensive checks and paperwork for animal and plant products – go round in circles.

The full application of EU law in this area has been delayed twice: once until April 2021 by UK–EU agreement, and for a second time until October by the UK government acting unilaterally. But long-term mutually agreed solutions are necessary to provide certainty and stability to Northern Ireland and prevent further political instability.

Solutions exist, with trade experts and businesses groups outlining a range of options such as UK–EU SPS veterinary agreements to remove the need for checks and paperwork entirely, and 'trusted trader' schemes to protect supermarket supply chains.[1However, neither the UK nor the EU are willing to shift from their entrenched positions, with talks stuck on the incompatibility of the EU’s zero-risk approach to protecting the single market and the UK’s red line of complete regulatory autonomy, for Great Britain at least. With the limit of technical solutions reached, political movement on both sides is needed.

The UK government needs to show it values Northern Ireland above hypothetical future benefits

A recent poll from Queen’s University Belfast showed that just 5% of people in Northern Ireland trusted the UK government to defend its interests over the protocol.[2] This is hardly surprising; the UK government has repeatedly shown a willingness to sacrifice Northern Ireland’s interests for the sake of its own.

In front of a House of Lords committee this week, Lord Frost ruled out even a temporary SPS agreement. He said it was a point of "fundamental principle" that the UK (or more accurately GB) will not align with EU law; control over its own regulation, he argued, was necessary to do trade deals with other countries. But the UK government must carefully consider whether an increase of 0.07% GDP – as, for example, its own analysis suggests a US trade deal will bring — is worth ongoing political instability in Northern Ireland and potential damage to the union[3]

Even if long-term alignment may be unlikely, there is a strong case for a time-limited agreement. New trade deals are neither imminent nor certain – with reports of cabinet splits over an Australian trade deal, that even if agreed would take time to ratify and phase in.[4] And, for the time being, Great Britain is unlikely to make major changes to retained EU law that forms the UK SPS regime.

The UK already agreed to align with the EU’s SPS rules in exchange for a three-month grace period for paperwork for supermarkets – and it should be willing to do so again to stabilise the political situation in Northern Ireland and buy more time to find long-term solutions. It should show that it is putting Northern Ireland first.

The EU needs to take responsibility for the part it played in the current political situation

Arrangements that tie GB to EU rules indefinitely are unlikely to be acceptable or sustainable – so the EU also needs to make concessions to make the protocol work in the long term.

It is not enough to say that the UK knew what it was signing up for: the political context has changed. The EU is in part responsible, with its aborted attempt to trigger the safeguarding mechanisms in Article 16 of the protocol over vaccine controls, which lay behind the DUP’s move to make abolishing the protocol party policy. It must take responsibility of its part in the deterioration of the political situation and make some real concessions.

The volume and nature of GB–NI trade means that the EU’s current ‘zero risk’ approach to enforcing the protocol is unnecessarily heavy handed – applying border processes designed for international trade to domestic supermarket supply chains. The EU must be willing to move away from this, balancing the need to protect the single market with the need to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market – both aims enshrined in the wording of the protocol itself.

If the UK agrees to alignment on a temporary basis then this would create time to gather more data on GB–NI trade flows and design bespoke solutions, like trusted trader schemes, that reflect the reality of Northern Ireland’s unique position. This kind of flexibility may require changes to EU law, so member states must be on board too – Ireland will be a key ally here. However, with political will the legal hurdles are not insurmountable.

A UK–EU agreement could pave the way to ‘de-politicise’ the protocol

To stabilise the political situation, the UK and the EU need to show they can work together to address concerns of businesses and the unionist community. This could also pave the way for more constructive discussions on some of the long-term questions about how the protocol works, such as how to manage the implications of GB/NI divergence in areas where EU law applies, how Northern Ireland voices can feed into EU policy making, and how Northern Ireland can take advantage of its unique position to attract investment.

These are crucial for the success of the arrangements, but so far constraints on capacity and political sensitivities have prevented meaningful engagement in these issues from the UK government, the EU or the Northern Ireland executive. The longer the stalemate around implementation lasts, the more opportunities to ensure that the protocol works in the interests of Northern Ireland are lost.

Country (international)
European Union
United Kingdom
Northern Ireland
Institute for Government

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