The proposals set out by the UK's lead negotiator pave the way to a satisfactory conclusion.
David Frost troubles the EU. Ever since he took over as the UK’s lead negotiator, Brussels has struggled to keep up with the way he does business. For years they had become conditioned to the Olly Robbins, apologetic, ‘please let’s be friends’ kind of negotiation, which suited them fine. Now, all of a sudden they find themselves being squeezed by someone who understands the critical point: that negotiation is for adversaries, agreement is for participants and friendship doesn’t come into it at all.
That is why the announcement Lord Frost made this week that significant changes need to be made to the structure of the NI Protocol is so critical. He knows that the Protocol is destroying the political balance in the province and making everyday life for the people living in Northern Ireland more and more difficult.
The EU has always maintained that the NI Protocol is there to protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, maintain peace and stability in Northern Ireland, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and preserve the integrity of the EU Single Market. But it hasn’t worked out like that. In fact Lord Trimble, co-architect of the Belfast/GFA, has gone as far as to say that the Protocol was destroying his agreement by making the border with the rest of the UK complicated, costly and unworkable. Absurdly, just under three times more documentary checks now take place in Northern Ireland than in Rotterdam, the major port of the EU, and NI now has to carry out over 20% of all the EU’s border checks.
As Lord Frost points out, this has led to a significant diversion in trade, which is forbidden in the agreement. The Irish Foreign Minister reinforced this when he gloated that this trade diversion was “….the opportunity to readjust their supply chains to adapt to these new realities…” Of course, such a diversion is enough to trigger article 16 of the agreement, allowing the UK to introduce unilateral safeguard measures to deal with it.
However, there is an alternative which would resolve this border mess and render the protocol unnecessary.
The solution lies in the concept of Mutual Enforcement - a dual autonomy approach based on existing international trade practice, originally mooted by no less than former director-general at the European Commission, Johnathan Faull. In essence, it would mean a set of rules would be established only for those producers wishing to sell to the EU market (and vice versa). UK producers exporting to markets outside the EU or those who don’t export at all would not be subject to EU regulatory standards. It would then become the responsibility of the EU or the UK to ensure the other sides’ rules were met for goods crossing the border.
Lord Frost’s proposals do not explicitly mention Mutual Enforcement. But they do set out some of the key requirements which would pave the way for such a settlement.
Those who say the UK agreed the protocol and must just implement it fail to recognise that throughout the treaty and political declaration it was always seen by both sides as a temporary solution. Furthermore, a recent poll gave the lie to the idea that the rest of the UK doesn’t care about Northern Ireland. When asked, well over 50% agreed that the Protocol was a threat to NI peace and stability, that it was unfair that NI was treated differently from the rest of the UK and, vitally, that NI should remain a part of the UK.
If the EU persists in simply rejecting any attempt to resolve the terrible mess of the Protocol, then it will continue to strain the UK/EU relationship - and for what?
Whatever the EU’s views on Brexit, politics should not be put ahead of peace and stability in NI.