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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.

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“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.

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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.”

Brexit

Brexit impact ‘will get worse’ with supermarket shop to cost more and some EU products vanishing from shelves

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The full impact of Brexit on both businesses and consumers will not be felt until next year with shortages set to worsen in sectors ranging from food to building materials, a leading customs expert has claimed, writes David Parsley.

Simon Sutcliffe, a partner at tax and advisory firm Blick Rothenberg, believes Government delays in implementing post-Brexit customs laws have “softened the impact” of the UK’s exit from the European Union, and that “things will get worse” when they are finally brought in from January 2022.

Despite leaving the EU on 1 January 2020, the Government has delayed many of the customs laws that were due to come into force last year.

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The requirement for pre-notification of arrival in the UK of agri-food imports will be introduced on 1 January 2022 as opposed to the already delayed date of 1 October this year.

The new requirements for Export Health Certificates will now be introduced even later, on 1 July next year.

Controls to protect animals and plants from diseases, pests, or contaminants will also be delayed until 1 July 2022, as will the requirement for Safety and Security declarations on imports.

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When these laws, which also include the customs declaration system, are brought in Mr Sutcliffe believes the food and raw material shortages already experienced to some extent – especially in Northern Ireland – will worsen on the mainland with some products disappearing from supermarket shelves for the foreseeable future.

Sutcliffe, who was among the first to predict the truck driver shortage and border issues in Northern Ireland, said: “Once these extra extensions come to an end we’re going to be in a whole world of pain until importers get to grips with it just like the exporters from the UK to the EU have had to already.

“The cost of the bureaucracy involved will mean many retailers will simply not stock some products from the EU any longer.

If you know your fruit delivery is stuck in a UK port for 10 days waiting to be checked, then you’re not going to bother importing it as it’ll go off before it even reaches the store.

“We’re looking at all kinds of products disappearing from supermarkets, from salami to cheeses, because they will just be too expensive to ship in. While a few boutique delicatessens may stock these products, they will become a more expensive and be harder to find.”

He added that the supermarket shop will also face steep price rises as the cost of importing even basic products such as fresh meat, milk, eggs and vegetables will cost retailers more.

“The retailers will not have much choice but to pass on at least some of the increased costs to the consumer,” said Sutcliffe. “In other words, consumers will have less choice and will have to pay more for their weekly shop.”

A spokesman for No 10 said: “We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border, which is why we’ve set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full border controls.

“Businesses will now have more time to prepare for these controls which will be phased in throughout 2022.”

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Europe ministers say trust in the UK at a low ebb

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Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, updating ministers on the latest developments, said that trust needed to be rebuilt and that he hopes to find solutions with the UK before the end of the year. 

European ministers meeting for the General Affairs Council (21 September) were updated on the state of play in EU-UK relations, in particular with regards to the implementation of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

Šefčovič updated ministers on the latest developments, including his recent visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, and ministers reiterated their support for the European Commission's approach: “The EU will continue to engage with the UK to find solutions within the framework of the protocol. We will do our utmost to bring back predictability and stability for the citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland and to ensure they can make the most of the opportunities provided by the protocol, including access to the single market.”

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The vice president said that many ministers had spoken in the debate at the Council meeting with concern over whether the UK was a trustworthy partner. French Europe Minister Clement Beaune said on his way into the meeting that Brexit and the recent dispute with France over the AUKUS submarine deal should not be mixed up. However, he said that there was an issue of trust, saying that the UK was a close ally but that the Brexit agreement was not being fully respected and that trust was needed in order to move on. 

Šefčovič aims to resolve all outstanding issues with the UK by the end of the year. On the UK’s threat to make use of Article 16 in the Protocol which allows the UK to take specific safeguarding actions if the protocol results in serious economic, social or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist or to a diversion of trade, Šefčovič said that the EU would have to react and that ministers had asked the Commission to prepare for any eventuality. Nevertheless, Šefčovič hopes this can be avoided.

Northern Ireland is already experiencing trade diversion, both in its imports and exports. This is due in large part to the very thin trade deal that the UK has chosen to pursue with the EU, despite being offered less damaging options. Any safeguarding measures must be restricted in terms of scope and duration. There is also a complicated procedure for discussing safeguarding measures laid out in annex seven of the protocol, which involves notifying the Joint Committee, waiting a month to apply any safeguards, unless there are extraordinary circumstances (which the UK will no doubt claim there are). The measures will then be reviewed every three months, in the unlikely event that they are found to be well grounded.

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Britain delays implementation of post-Brexit trade controls

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Britain said on Tuesday (14 Sseptember) it was delaying the implementation of some post-Brexit import controls, the second time they have been pushed back, citing pressures on businesses from the pandemic and global supply chain strain.

Britain left the European Union's single market at the end of last year but unlike Brussels which introduced border controls immediately, it staggered the introduction of import checks on goods such as food to give businesses time to adapt.

Having already delayed the introduction of checks by six months from April 1, the government has now pushed the need for full customs declarations and controls back to Jan. 1, 2022. Safety and security declarations will be required from July 1 next year.

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"We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border, which is why we've set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full border controls," Brexit minister David Frost said.

"Businesses will now have more time to prepare for these controls which will be phased in throughout 2022."

Industry sources in the logistics and customs sector have also said the government's infrastructure was not ready to impose full checks.

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