Brexit minister Lord Frost has announced another extension of the Northern Ireland protocol grace periods. By delaying the full implementation of some checks and controls at the end of September, this unilateral move – which met with a muted EU response – avoids significant trade disruption for which neither businesses nor the government were prepared.
But unlike previous extensions the UK government hasn’t given a deadline. This raises the possibility of indefinite delay, but that cannot not be permanent solution. It leaves Northern Ireland in an ongoing state of uncertainty and political instability; DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has threatened to collapse the Executive if progress is not made towards finding a resolution. It will also potentially impede Northern Ireland’s ability to take advantage of an agreement which – unlike the rest of the UK – keep its frictionless access to the EU single market for goods.
The UK and the EU need to use this latest round of extra time to intensify discussions and reach agreement future of the protocol. With political will, the two sides can make progress. Here’s how:
To find tailored solutions on the protocol, both sides need to better understand the problems it poses: its impact on trade as a whole, and how this varies from sector to sector and for different types of businesses.
But there is a lack of data on both the immediate impact of the protocol and its long-term implications for GB-NI trade. The UK government command paper, published in July, relied heavily on anecdotal evidence and surveys conducted by business membership, but these can only capture a snapshot – and not a fully representative one – of what is happening on the ground.
If the UK wants to reassure the EU that changes to the protocol would not represent a risk to the single market, then it will need hard data about what types of goods are entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the traders that are moving them and their compliance procedures, and where those goods end up. The UK and the EU should jointly commission independent research into the functioning of the protocol.
One of the biggest barriers to progress on the protocol is that the two sides have wildly different views about what changes or adjustments are even possible.
The UK has set out proposals for major changes, including exempting goods staying in Northern Ireland from paperwork and checks, and ending the role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the application of EU law. The EU has said that it will not agree to a re-negotiation, but the UK has insists that minor technical fixes within the existing legal text – like those put forward by the EU – will not be enough to address some of its concerns.
The two sides must first agree on what options are (and are not) on the table, and then establish common ground. This requires the EU to go further in considering additional flexibilities on the application of EU law under the protocol, but the UK must also recognise that it has signed up to arrangements within the Withdrawal Agreement and be clear that it respects a treaty ratified by the UK government and parliament.
Both sides should also continue to explore options to build on the Protocol and agree a wider UK-EU agri-food deal to minimise trade friction. A middle-ground between the EU’s preferred option of dynamic alignment – which would remove the vast majority of checks and see the UK align with EU law – and the UK’s preference of equivalence – in which the EU would recognise the UK’s own domestic laws as equal in exchange for fewer checks – could still be found.
The purpose of the protocol is to protect the peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland, yet high profile UK-EU disputes over its operation have relegated the interests of the region. For the arrangements to be a success they must be accepted by those most impacteded – the people of Northern Ireland. The UK and the EU must find ways to ensure that Northern Ireland voices, and not just politicians, are central to the discussion.
Academics from Queen’s University Belfast – David Phinnemore and Katy Hayward – have put forward six ways to improve public engagement with the protocol in Northern Ireland, including greater transparency around UK-EU protocol meetings, formalising consultation processes, and including Northern Ireland officials and experts in meeting. The UK and the EU should adopt their recommendations.
Another cliff edge has been avoided, but only temporarily. The time should now be used to ensure it can be avoided for good.