Brexit ForeverThe Northern Ireland Protocol and the Government’s Brexit Addiction
David Frost’s speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Dominic Cummings’ shocking revelations on Twitter, showed that the UK is playing the same old games over Brexit, says Mike Buckley
If the Northern Ireland Protocol was merely about trade, it could have been resolved this week.
Northern Ireland businesses, which have spent months in discussion with EU officials about the scale and complexity of checks imposed by the Protocol in its current form, have declared that EU proposals to resolve the difficulties go “beyond expectations”.
The Protocol is an element of the Government’s Brexit agreement that ties Northern Ireland to the customs union and parts of the single market, easing trade with the Republic of Ireland yet effectively creating a border down the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain (which is now outside the customs union and single market).
Seamus Leheny, the Northern Ireland policy manager at the Logistics UK trade association, said that the EU’s proposals looked almost like a carbon copy of its requests. “What this shows is that the EU listened to us,” he said. “They want the protocol to work. It is very encouraging. But what we ask now is that the UK Government and the EU with some urgency work through this and get an agreement.”
Glyn Roberts, the chief executive of Retail NI, which represents independent supermarkets and corner shops, said that he was optimistic that a deal could be done. “At the end of the day, this is about hard-working families not having to pay more for their food and having the full range available in their local shops and online.”
Industry leaders have little interest in the politics of the Protocol, according to Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, referring to “red line” demands by the UK and unionists to scrap the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the final arbiter in trade disputes. “It has not been a topic of discussion,” he added.
Roberts agreed, saying: “I hope we can dial-down the megaphone diplomacy and can join the two [EU and UK] sets of proposals that will give us unfettered trade east-west, north-south but also the access to the single market.”
The industry leaders are right. The Protocol ought to be about trade and the affordability of food and other essential goods in Northern Ireland, just as Brexit as a whole should have prioritised these issues in negotiations. If their hopes are dashed it will be because the Protocol is a political tool for the Government. The economics, if they feature at all, are little more than an afterthought.
This was the message of Brexit Minister David Frost’s speech on the Protocol this week in which he effectively rejected EU proposals before they had been announced. Instead of an amended Protocol, he demanded an entirely new agreement.
The existing Protocol is “not doing what it was designed to achieve” and must “be improved” he said. In its place, he wants a “new protocol” that would remove almost all checks on goods and end ECJ oversight. Failure to agree a new deal would be a “historic misjudgement,” Frost warned.
Frost’s speech, said trade expert Anna Jerzewska, backed “the UK into a corner” so that accepting the EU’s proposal is “impossible”. Whereas the EU proposes technical changes, the UK wants to redraw basic principles that, for the EU, are “not up for negotiation”.
A ‘Cynical Calculation’
For its part, the EU has no desire for a trade war with the UK. Berlin is building a new government. The EU as a whole is focused on gas prices and tensions over the anti-democratic trajectory of the Hungarian and Polish governments.
The question is what David Frost – and his boss Boris Johnson, who is perhaps conveniently on holiday – actually want. If Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings is to be believed, pulling out of the Protocol was always part of the plan. According to Cummings, Johnson always planned to “ditch” the Protocol after the 2019 General Election.
Mutjaba Rahman believes that Johnson and Frost have made a “cynical calculation” that, faced with a UK-initiated suspension of the Protocol, in all but name removing the border between the UK and single market, the EU will not be able to take action. Both its available options – a hard border on the island of Ireland, and the removal of Ireland from the single market by introducing customs checks between it and other member states – are politically untenable.
But, according to Rahman, Johnson is “massively under-estimating the likely EU response”. Many in Brussels believe that if the UK reneges on its commitments under the Protocol, the right response would be to suspend the entire trade agreement that ended Brexit negotiations last Christmas – which enables zero tariff and zero quota trade between the UK and EU. The result would be higher prices and even deeper shortages of goods and labour than the UK is currently experiencing.
The Prime Minister may not care about economic impacts – he has after all shown little interest in them so far. Some believe that his real concern is the prosperity of Northern Ireland, given its continued membership of the customs union and single market. Its lack of shortages – its petrol stations have seen none of the shortages experienced on the mainland – are a clear signal that Brexit is the cause of much of Britain’s economic hardship.
Leo Varadkar, who in 2019 was Irish Taoiseach and helped to negotiate the Protocol with the UK, has called Cummings’ comments “alarming”, because they indicate that Johnson’s Government “acted in bad faith”.
“They’re going around the world, they are trying to negotiate new trade agreements,” he said. “The message must go out to all countries around the world that this is a British Government that doesn’t necessarily keep its word, doesn’t necessarily honour the agreements it makes.”
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All the while, the people of Northern Ireland simply want to get on with their lives. Yet, thanks to Boris Johnson’s posturing, the Protocol is unlikely to be resolved in the medium-term.
Despite the hard work and goodwill of Northern Irish industry leaders and the EU, the fundamental problem remains the same: in the words of James Ramsbotham, outgoing chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce, the British Government is “addicted to Brexit”.
Speaking of problems faced by businesses in the north-east of England, he said: “As long as they pretend it is somebody else’s fault and they don’t take responsibility for it, they will never put the effort in to actually sort it out.”
But Frost’s speech showed that the Government is still addicted to Brexit and its myths. Brexit, he said, had led to a “bonfire of regulations” despite daily news stories of businesses going to the wall because of increased bureaucracy and costs. Brexit was about “safeguarding British democracy”, yet the Government he represents is removing the right to free protest, politicising the Electoral Commission, and using recognised voter suppression tactics to cement its hold on power.
Until this preoccupation stops, there will be no rational engagement on the Protocol, no acceptance that Brexit is the cause of goods and labour shortages, and hence no attempt to end them. The reputation of the UK as a trustworthy actor on the world stage will continue to suffer, as will British politics.
Cummings said that he and Johnson agreed “to ditch bits [of the Protocol] we didn’t like after whacking Corbyn”. Effectively, he’s admitting that they used Northern Ireland – not just the poorest part of the UK but also its most fragile – as a tool to win an election.
We are used to Johnson’s games by now. But, given the fragility of the Northern Ireland peace process, this revelation should shock us all.