Brexit: UK to outline how it wants to overhaul Northern Ireland Protocol

Lord Frost

EPA

UK ministers will outline how they want to overhaul trading arrangements between Britain and Northern Ireland that came into effect after Brexit.

The Northern Ireland Protocol helps prevent the need for checks on the island of Ireland’s internal border.

But Lord Frost says the deal – which could mean a ban on exports of British chilled meat and sausages to Northern Ireland – is unfair and unsustainable.

The Brexit minister will explain the government’s plans to Parliament later.

The protocol was negotiated with the EU by Lord Frost but he is expected to say its terms need to be radically changed.

In particular, the government is worried about chilled meat products, including burgers and sausages, no longer being exportable from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) to Northern Ireland, when the full terms of the deal are set to kick in at the end of September.

The UK is expected to warn the EU it is prepared to override the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland if a simpler agreement cannot be reached.

But it will not be triggering Article 16 of the protocol – which would allow it to suspend parts of the Brexit deal – “in the short term”, a government source said.

Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer has warned there could be higher prices and less choice for its Northern Ireland customers if EU customs rules – which would mean full checks on goods coming in from Great Britain – come into force in the autumn.

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Analysis box by Adam Fleming, Chief political correspondent

The EU has made its pitch to smooth the edges of the Northern Ireland Protocol, including changes to the rules for the transport of guide dogs and the use of UK-approved medicines.

But that’s not nearly enough for the government, which wants something more radical, like a big reduction in the number of checks on goods crossing the Irish sea and a guarantee that British sausages will always be able to be exported to Northern Ireland.

The UK will stop short of triggering the nuclear option – the infamous Article 16 which would allow it to suspend some parts of the deal – but will suggest that trade has been diverted within the UK enough to justify it being used in future.

Expect some tension in the next few days, some under-the-radar talks during the summer and then something that feels like a crisis as a series of deadlines expire at the end of September.

Brexit is – but also isn’t – done.

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The protocol was agreed to prevent the return of a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, as both the UK and EU want to prevent any return to the Troubles, which lasted 30 years and cost more than 3,500 lives.

Under its terms, Northern Ireland effectively remains part of the EU’s single market for goods, meaning it complies with standards set by Brussels.

The biggest practical difficulty, in trade terms, concerns the movement of food from Britain to Northern Ireland, which could then be transported into the EU via the Irish land border.

Brussels says the issue could be solved if the UK agreed to follow EU food standards – known as a Swiss-style deal.

But Lord Frost says the UK is not prepared to concede control over food standards and wants what is known as an equivalence deal – where the EU would accept British standards as being as good as its own.

On Monday, the Brexit minister said the only way to make the protocol sustainable was to “find a way to hugely reduce or eliminate the barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

According to the Financial Times, he will push for an “honesty box” approach, allowing companies to declare their goods are only destined for sale and use in Northern Ireland – rather than across the EU – to exempt them from checks on the Irish Sea border.

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What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU in October 2019 and was subject to further negotiation and agreement in 2020.

It helps prevent checks along the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

This was easy to do when both Ireland and Northern Ireland were part of the EU, because they automatically shared the same EU rules on trade and no checks were needed on goods travelling from one country to another.

To avoid checks on goods along the Irish border after Brexit, it was agreed some would be carried out when they entered Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales instead.

Inspections take place at Northern Ireland ports, and customs documents have to be filled in.

This has prompted criticism that a new border has effectively been created in the Irish Sea.

Map of the the UK showing how goods travelling from GB into NI and onward to the Republic of Ireland.

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Ireland’s European affairs minister Thomas Byrne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re going to listen carefully to what the British government have to say.

“We’re willing to discuss any creative solutions within the confines of the protocol but we have to recognise as well that Britain decided itself to leave the single market of the European Union, to apply trade rules, to apply red tape to its goods that are leaving Britain, to goods that are coming into Britain.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson used a phone call on Tuesday with his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin to call for “pragmatism” to address the “serious challenges that have arisen with the protocol”.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The prime minister emphasised that the way the protocol is currently operating is causing significant disruption for the people in Northern Ireland.”

In a press briefing on Tuesday, the US State Department urged the UK and EU to “negotiate within the existing mechanisms when differences arise”.

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