The Sunday Telegraph
The arrogant EU won’t budge an inch. We have no choice but to abolish the Protocol
When people in Northern Ireland call on the EU to show “pragmatism” or “flexibility” in interpreting the Protocol, they are spectacularly missing the point. Brussels has no interest in being reasonable. It positively relishes Britain’s discomfort. The last thing it wants to do is loosen the stays.
As Eurocrats see it, the Protocol is the surest way to keep the UK from straying too far from their regulatory orbit. Already, every trade deal we contract with a third country needs to be compatible with its terms. But they want to go further, squeezing us until we agree to follow all EU food and veterinary rules in perpetuity, thereby rendering an independent commercial policy far less viable.
Plainly no British administration could accept such an outcome. Indeed, no self-respecting country should tolerate a situation in which internal trade barriers are maintained on its own soil by an overseas power, and in which a chunk of its population is partially subject to foreign rule.
The question is not whether the Protocol can be maintained. It can’t. The question, rather, is whether the EU will acquiesce in the process of its replacement – or at least, its substantive reform. All the signs are that it won’t. As Emmanuel Macron put it on Thursday: “Nothing is negotiable. Everything is applicable.”
Brussels sees Northern Ireland as a tender spot, a place where it can chafe and irritate the British with – thanks to Theresa May’s atrocious negotiations – the letter of the law on its side. It is almost as if the foreign policy fears of Elizabethan England have been belatedly realised, and Ireland turned into a bridgehead for unfriendly Continental powers (a situation, for what it’s worth, that was historically calamitous for Ireland).
Never mind that the Protocol has destabilised the delicate balance in Ulster, toppling two Unionist leaders and bringing mass protests to the streets. Never mind that, according to the surviving author of the Good Friday Agreement, David Trimble, it is incompatible with that accord. The European Commission’s loudly proclaimed interest in the peace process was exposed as hogwash when it attempted to impose a border on the island of Ireland from no higher motive than resentment at the success of Britain’s vaccination programme. No, this has nothing to do with concern for Ireland, and everything to do with pressure on Boris Johnson.
Don’t fall for the spin about it being a largely symbolic issue, of interest only to Unionists, and with only slight real-world consequences. The Protocol is causing needless economic disruption to people from both traditions in Northern Ireland and, indeed, to consumers and retailers in the Republic.
I sit on the parliamentary committee which is studying its effects. For several weeks we have been taking evidence from all sides, with the exemplary balance one expects from parliamentary authorities. I think it is fair to say that no one we heard from was an enthusiast for the Protocol. Some accepted it as a price worth paying and some wanted it scrapped, but no one could be said positively to like it. Almost everyone – business people, politicians, academics – wanted it at least changed, if not replaced.
You can see why. One economist told us that, extrapolating from the additional paperwork now associated with moving each pallet of goods, the cost of the Protocol was around 6 per cent of the roughly £10billion worth of material moved annually from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
That figure is, of course, very significant for local businesses. But it is negligible as a proportion of the EU’s economy. Another of our witnesses had worked out that trade between the two parts of the UK is equivalent to 0.0008 per cent of the EU’s GDP. Yet Brussels conducts around 20 per cent of all the checks on goods entering its territory on this nugatory volume.
No one seriously thinks that this is about “protecting the integrity of the single market”. The EU is not deploying the full panoply of checks because it thinks that a pork pie sold in the Sainsbury’s in Armagh might somehow cross the border. Sainsbury’s has no outlets in the Republic and, in any case, why would it matter if a British pork pie were somehow smuggled into Co Monaghan?
Even some of our Europhile civil servants have had their eyes opened. It is clear that the EU is, once again, insisting on the most maximalist and unreasonable position imaginable, even when such a position hurts its own interests. As happened recently during its negotiations with Switzerland and, come to that, during Brexit itself, its stubbornness will backfire. The tiniest willingness to compromise with David Cameron would have won him the referendum. The smallest concessions to Theresa May would have kept Britain in the customs union. The merest flexibility vis-à-vis Switzerland would have held it close. But the EU will not – perhaps cannot – move beyond its irritable imperiousness.
All of which, paradoxically, makes Britain’s choice much easier. There are two sets of problems with the Protocol. The first kind are practical, deal with checks on goods, are equally resented by both communities and could easily be addressed. The second are democratic, stem from the fact that Northern Ireland has elements of its taxes and regulations set by Brussels, are mainly disliked by Unionists and cannot be tackled other than through a clean abrogation.
Had the EU been a bit more sensible about moving sausages from Wales to Northern Ireland – or, as the PM deliciously puts it, moving bangers from Bangor to Bangor – then it would have recuperated the moral high ground. Had it been readier to let people take their pets from Jedburgh to Jonesborough, Britain would have found an outright repudiation of the Protocol a much tougher sell, domestically as well as internationally. But the EU’s intransigence makes abrogation both desirable and inevitable. Under the terms of the Protocol, Brussels was supposed to use its “best endeavours to facilitate the trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom”. No one seriously claims that it has done so.
No doubt there will be some pushback when Britain declares that, in the light of the EU’s attitude, the Protocol no longer applies. Brussels can hardly let matters lie, and will have to apply some sort of sanction. Frankly, though, it is hard to see what it can do that it is not doing already. It arbitrarily refuses to grant equivalence to UK financial services firms. It pettily vetoes Britain’s accession to the Lugano Convention on mutual legal enforcement (as its name suggests, the Lugano Convention is a panEuropean deal, not an EU one). Sure, it might apply actual tariffs – but every economist understands, even if not every politician does, that tariffs end up doing the greatest harm to the state that applies them.
In short, there is nothing the EU can realistically do that is worse, from Britain’s point of view, than maintaining the Protocol. And since any unilateral action is likely to incur a penalty, we might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. We won’t get a better opportunity to tackle the really objectionable part of the deal, namely the democratic deficit.
What would happen if the whole arrangement were simply scrapped? Would it mean a physical border in Ireland? Of course not. No British or Irish government was ever going to put up border checks (beyond the cameras already ubiquitous on UK highways). That was a scare story aimed at chiefly American opinion.
Britain should, when it abrogates the Protocol, offer what was always the obvious alternative: a system of mutual enforcement whereby each party undertakes in law to prevent illicit goods from entering the territory of the other. Not that Britain will be especially fussed about reciprocity. We are pretty relaxed about EU goods entering our territory, because we are not trying to create a problem for the sake of it. But a system of mutual enforcement, based on proportionate risk-assessment and electronic prescreening, was the obvious solution all along, and was the one being explored by London and Dublin before Leo Varadkar took over.
Britain would, in effect, say the following. “We tried to make the Protocol work, but it became clear that the EU saw it as a negotiating lever rather than as a practical mechanism. We are therefore abolishing it and restoring full democracy to Northern Ireland. We unequivocally repeat our pledge not to raise any new physical infrastructure at the Irish border. What happens on the other side of it is not up to us, but we are open to any realistic scheme that will allow the EU to make the same pledge. We suggest a system of mutual recognition and mutual enforcement.”
Some British commentators became so demented after the 2016 referendum that they now automatically back the EU, however unreasonable its position. They will doubtless go ballistic. But the rest of the country can see that Eurocrats have put themselves in the wrong. British sausages will travel freely to Ulster. Let Brussels do its wurst.
Why would it matter if a British pork pie were somehow smuggled into Co Monaghan?