What is behind Britain’s move?
Just seven months after it came into force, the Northern Ireland protocol is proving once again to be a significant flashpoint in the UK’s relations with Dublin and Brussels.
The UK government yesterday published a “command paper” on the protocol. Some will see it as an attempt to tear up the agreement Boris Johnson struck in 2019. Others will see it as a serious attempt to fix a deal they argue was flawed from the beginning but helped the prime minister get Brexit done, as he had promised.
Why is the paper being published now?
The EU and UK recently agreed to extend talks over the implementation of the protocol until 30 September. This is an attempt by the Brexit minister, David Frost, to set the agenda before a summer of talks.
What is in the paper?
1. Removal of any role for EU institutions to enforce the protocol
The paper proposed to rewrite large chunks of the protocol including article 5 which covers Brexit checks, including customs documents, and article 12 which relates to the supervision and enforcement of the arrangements. This is because the UK wants to remove any role for EU institutions including the European court of justice. The UK says the involvement of the EU in policing the deal just “engenders mistrust and problems”.
2. A standstill period to renegotiate
The proposal sets out new arrangements to remove the red tape for parcel post coming from Great Britain and an “honesty box” regime for others. In a “standstill period”, the partial operation of the protocol continues as is, but the EU agrees to stay its legal actions against the EU and park grace periods, which the UK says just create phoney deadlines and crisis and distract from getting to the “heart” of the issues.
3. Removal of customs checks
The UK is also proposing the abolition of blanket customs paperwork for traders selling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. Instead a “trust and verify” system, dubbed an “honesty box” would apply whereby traders would register their sales in a lighttouch system allowing inspection of their supply chains to ensure compliance. Those selling on to the Republic of Ireland would continue with customs documents.
4. Clear a path to restore fuss-free parcels and online shopping
The UK believes the removal of customs barriers would solve problems for online shoppers who have either experienced weeks and weeks of delays trying to get goods delivered from GB or face retailers simply not supplying to the region.
5. Dual regulation
The UK is asking for a new dual regulatory system whereby manufactured or sanitary or phytosanitary goods can be sold in Northern Ireland as long as they meet “either UK or EU rules as determined by UK or EU regulators”. This is a very tricky issue as it returns to the issues over protections the EU sought to stop substandard goods getting into the single market via the backdoor of Northern Ireland.
What about article 16?
Frost says the UK reserves the right to trigger article 16 and suspend the protocol but says now is not the time as it believes an agreed deal is better.
Is this an admission that the protocol was flawed?
Yes. Senior sources say it got the UK out of the EU “as one country” but admit the difficulties over Ireland can be traced back to what they see as a flawed joint report signed by Theresa May in December 2017 that set the agenda on the protocol.
Did the EU and the US get advance warning?
Yes. Both were briefed. The UK believes their approach in the last few months, where they did not take unilateral action, shows they are behaving and acting in good faith and say they hope the EU reciprocates.