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Tiger in the Tank or not – fine words butter no #Brexit parsnips

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On Friday 12 June 2020 at the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee meeting – the last formal moment to agree an extension to the Transition Period – Michael Gove confirmed the long standing position that UK will not seek an extension of the transition period. Two of the many statements surrounding this confirmation are worth commenting on, as they encapsulate the spirit of the Brexit, for what they say as much as for what they omit, writes Zuzana Podracká, GLOBSEC’s Research Fellow.

First, a statement by Whitehall official: "As we take back control of our laws and our borders at the end of this year, we will take a pragmatic and flexible approach to help business adjust to the changes and opportunities of being outside the single market and the customs union."

Behind the Brexit bingo language of ‘taking back control’ and ‘opportunities outside of the single market and customs union’ lies something that can plausibly be described as the UK government introducing a transition period to follow a transition period whilst not extending the original transition period. Though the UK businesses welcome the three stages of introducing border controls, the procedure does not exactly remove the obligation of a full customs declaration, merely delays it. In the likely absence of other (sufficient) measures efficiently implemented, it would not actually ease the administrative and cost burden on the private sector.

More importantly, what this statement does not mention is that the EU too will ‘take back’, or rather ‘maintain’ control of its borders. Amid the UK preferences, the EU officials made it rather clear that there is no intention of EU "replicating UK’s 'light touch' border after Brexit". Given that the EU as a bloc accounts for around 50% of UK’s exports, the effect this could have on the UK’s fragile post-pandemic economy could be striking. It is also worth mentioning that the flexible arrangement does not include trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the UK, as this is covered by the Withdrawal Agreement. Coincidentally, not only have the businesses in Northern Ireland expressed disappointment that there are no plans for similar ‘flexible approach‘ in the region, the implementation of this particular point of the Withdrawal Agreement is being flagged up as the area of key concern. The EU worries that the UK might try to wriggle out of some of its obligations on custom controls.

Secondly, a hope expressed by UK officials that Johnson – von der Leyen summit could "pave the way for a compromise, in the same way as the prime minister’s walk in the woods in the Wirral with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, led to a breakthrough on the Irish border last October". The point to be made here is just how much Boris Johnson is believed to be able to work something close to magic to break the deadlock in negotiations. In April, I wrote that Boris Johnson has convinced even the most sceptical of us that he was the only man who could ‘get Brexit done‘ – however, why this belief in his capabilities persists is anyone’s guess.

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, there were several reasons to believe that he can save the day, chief among them his ability to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement that gained approval on both sides of the Channel and carried him to a sweeping election victory. A few months later, however, he has become a  Prime Minister of a country that is failing to get the Covid19 under control in international and domestic terms, with the UK economy ‘falling off a cliff‘. And despite the fact that his personal approval ratings are (somehow) falling more slowly than those of his party, his ongoing divisive rhetoric topped by the scandal surrounding his (still in position) advisor Dominic Cumming are not going unnoticed by the UK population at large or the Keith Starmer led Labour opposition.

As for the EU, though by now there is a consensus that online negotiations have reached their limit, the bottom line remains that the failure to progress on any of the key areas from fisheries to citizens‘ rights is primarily caused not by a lack of charisma and good spirits (Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič himself described the meeting last Friday as cordial and constructive), but by the fact that we cannot seem to move from ‘the aspirational to the operational’ fast enough. After all, the main outcome of the Monday virtual meeting seems to be the agreement that we need to ‘put the tiger in the tank’ – but fine words doth butter no parsnips. It is high time that Boris Johnson and his government either use the accelerated talks schedule to actually put the ‘oven ready’ deal into the oven or prepare for the many faces of starvation that await the UK.

Brexit

UK's Johnson urges EU to consider post-Brexit proposals seriously

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Britain's Prime Minister of United Kingdom, Boris Johnson poses with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen during the Leaders official welcome and family photo at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 11, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to consider seriously Britain's proposals to change what he called the "unsustainable" way a Brexit deal is governing trade with Northern Ireland, writes Elizabeth Piper.

Since it completed its exit from the EU at the end of last year, Britain's ties with the bloc have reached new lows, with both sides accusing each other of acting in bad faith over an agreement for post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland.

London accuses Brussels of being too purist, or legalistic, in interpreting what the deal means for some goods moving from Britain to its province of Northern Ireland. The EU says it is adhering to the deal, which Johnson signed just last year.

Britain proposed on Wednesday to renegotiate parts of the Northern Ireland protocol that govern the movement of goods such as chilled meats, and to dispense with EU oversight of the accord.

The EU has rejected the demand to renegotiate, with von der Leyen repeating the bloc's message on Twitter, saying: "The EU will continue to be creative and flexible within the Protocol framework. But we will not renegotiate."

Johnson spoke to van der Leyen last week.

"The prime minister set out that the way the protocol was currently operating was unsustainable. He said that solutions could not be found through the existing mechanisms of the protocol and that's why we'd set out proposals for significant changes to it," Johnson's spokesman told reporters.

Johnson urged the EU to "look at the proposals seriously and work with the UK on them" saying this would put the UK-EU relationship on a better footing.

Britain drafted the proposals in one paper that it issued on Wednesday to try to force stuttering negotiations forward on making the so-called protocol work better. Some critics say few of the suggestions are new and could largely be dismissed by the EU.

The protocol addresses the biggest conundrum raised by the divorce: how to preserve the delicate peace brought to the province by the U.S.-brokered 1998 Good Friday peace accord - by maintaining an open border - without opening a back door through neighbouring Ireland to the EU’s single market of 450 million people.

It essentially requires checks on goods between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the EU customs area. These have proved burdensome to companies and an anathema to unionists, who are fiercely supportive of the province remaining part of the United Kingdom.

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EU backs Ireland as UK searches for solutions to Northern Ireland Protocol dilemma

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The controversial Northern Ireland Protocol which is part of the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement, shows no sign of resolving itself any time soon. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, the European Commission is unwilling to back down while the British continue to search for an opening to get themselves out of an agreed document that they themselves hailed last December.

It’s seven months since the British government boasted of a great deal when Brexit was formally signed and sealed in Brussels with smiles and pre-Christmas cheer all round.

As UK chief negotiator Lord David Frost tweeted on Christmas Eve 2020: “I’m very pleased and proud to have led a great UK team to secure today’s excellent deal with the EU.

“Both sides worked tirelessly day after day in challenging conditions to get the biggest and broadest deal in the World, in record time. Thank you all who made it happen.”

One might think reading his words that the British government were hoping to live happily ever after once the deal was done. However, all is not going to plan.

Under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is an annex to the EU/UK accord, created a new trading arrangement between GB and Northern Ireland which, although being on the island of Ireland, is actually in the United Kingdom.

The objective of the Protocol is that certain items being moved from GB to NI such as eggs, milk and chilled meats amongst others, must undergo port checks in order to arrive on to the island of Ireland from where they can be sold locally or moved on to the Republic, which remains in the European Union.

As working class protestant unionists or British loyalists in Northern Ireland see it, the Protocol or notional trade border in the Irish Sea, amounts to another incremental step towards a united Ireland-which they vehemently oppose-and marks further isolation from Britain where their loyalty is to.

Former Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Edwin Poots said the Protocol has put “absurd barriers placed on trade with our biggest market [GB]”.

A grace period from 1 January to 30 June was agreed to allow for the measures to come in to effect but such has been the hostility in Northern Ireland towards the Protocol, that period has now been extended until the end of September in order to find ways for acceptable compromise to keep all sides happy!

The Protocol and its implications which, it seems, Britain didn’t think through, has angered members of the unionist community so much in Northern Ireland, protests on the streets every other night since early Summer, have become a common sight.

Such is the sense of betrayal towards London over the Protocol, British loyalists have threatened to take their protests to Dublin in the Irish republic, a move many would see as provoking an excuse for violence.

Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson speaking on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk Radio in Dublin recently said: “Save for there being a quite remarkable turnaround in terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the coming weeks… I would imagine most definitely those protests will be taken south of the border, certainly following 12 July.”

12 July, a date seen in Northern Ireland as marking the peak of the Orange Order marching season, has come and gone. So far, those opposed to the Protocol in Northern Ireland have yet to cross the border that separates northern from southern Ireland.

However, with pressure mounting on the Government in London from British unionists in Northern Ireland and traders who feel their businesses will suffer greatly when the full contents of the Protocol document come in to effect, Lord Frost has been trying desperately to amend and soften the deal he negotiated and praised to the max last December.

The same deal, it should be added, was passed in the House of Commons by 521 votes to 73, a sign perhaps that the British Government didn’t perform its due diligence!

Among the visible consequences of Brexit in Northern Ireland are long delays for truck drivers at ports with some major supermarkets chains complaining of empty shelves.

The feeling in Dublin is that if COVID-19 measures were not in place, the real true consequences of Brexit would likely be more harsh in Northern Ireland than they already are.

With pressure on Lord Frost to sort out this political dilemma as soon as possible, he told the Westminster parliament last week, “we can not go on as we are”.

Publishing what was titled ‘A Command Paper’, it brazenly went on to say, “the involvement of the EU in policing the deal just “engenders mistrust and problems”.

The Paper even suggested the abolition of blanket customs paperwork for traders selling from Great Britain into NI.

Instead, a “trust and verify” system, dubbed an “honesty box”, would apply, whereby traders would register their sales in a light-touch system allowing inspection of their supply chains, a suggestion which, no doubt, sent smugglers to bed with a smile on their face!

The very suggestion of an “honesty box” must have sounded amusing and ironic in Northern Ireland where in 2018, Boris Johnson promised delegates at the DUP annual conference that “there would be no border in the Irish Sea” only for him to subsequently go back on his word!

With EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen confirming last week to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there will be no re-negotiation of the Agreement, the UK side looks set to make itself ultra unpopular again with the protestant unionist and Irish nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.

With British protestant unionists in Northern Ireland angry over the Protocol, Irish catholic nationalists are also furious with London after the Secretary of State for NI Brandon Lewis announced proposals to cease all investigations in to murders committed during the Troubles prior to 1998.

If implemented, the families of those that died at the hands of British soldiers and security services would never ever get justice while those that died from actions carried out by UK loyalists and Irish republicans would suffer the same fate.

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin speaking in Dublin said “the British proposals were unacceptable and amounted to betrayal [to the families].”

With US President Joe Biden, a man of Irish heritage, saying last year that he will not sign a trade deal with the UK if London does anything to undermine the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, the Boris Johnson administration, it seems, has a dwindling number of friends in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Dublin and Washington.

Talks to review the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol look set to resume in the coming weeks.

With the EU signalling it is unwilling to budge and the US administration siding with Dublin, London finds itself in a difficult dilemma which will require something remarkable to escape from.

As one caller to a Dublin radio phone-in programme remarked last week on the issue: “Somebody should tell the British that Brexit has consequences. You get what you vote for.”

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UK demands EU agrees to new Northern Ireland Brexit deal

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View of the border crossing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland outside Newry, Northern Ireland, Britain, October 1, 2019. REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Britain on Wednesday (21 July) demanded a new deal from the European Union to oversee post-Brexit trade involving Northern Ireland but shied away from unilaterally ditching part of the divorce deal despite saying its terms had been breached, write Michael Holden and William James.

The Northern Ireland protocol was agreed by Britain and the European Union as part of a 2020 Brexit deal, finally sealed four years after British voters backed the divorce in a referendum.

It sought to get round the biggest conundrum of the divorce: how to protect the EU's single market but also avoid land borders between the British province and the Irish Republic, the presence of which politicians on all sides fear could fuel violence largely ended by a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace accord.

The protocol essentially required checks on goods between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, but these have proved burdensome to business and an anathema to "unionists" who are fiercely supportive of the province remaining part of the United Kingdom.

"We cannot go on as we are," Brexit Minister David Frost told parliament, saying there was justification for invoking Article 16 of the protocol which allowed either side to take unilateral action to dispense with its terms if there was an unexpected negative effect arising from the agreement.

"It is clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16. Nevertheless ... we have concluded that is not the right moment to do so.

"We see an opportunity to proceed differently, to find a new path to seek to agree with the EU through negotiations, a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all."

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