23 February 2022

Northern Ireland, olive oil and the EU’s phony attitude to ‘risk’

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As the world watched the crisis at Ukraine’s border escalate on Monday, EU negotiators were preoccupied with a different geopolitical threat on the other side of the continent. After a meeting of the ‘joint committee’, set up to oversee Brussels’ Brexit deal with the UK, an official told a reporter about the peril of olive oil entering the bloc’s single market from Great Britain via Northern Ireland. 

‘There are some kinds of olive oil – extra virgin olive oil – which are usually moved for consumption by restaurants and people in kitchens,’ the ‘senior’ figure explained to RTE’s Tony Connelly.

‘There are other types of olive oil which are used for processing. It’s only if you know in sufficient detail what kind of olive oil you’re dealing with, that you can then carry out a risk assessment about whether it’s likely to be consumed in Northern Ireland, or whether it will have another purpose.’

This explanation conjured up an image of millions of litres of substandard oil, from the olive groves of Surrey perhaps, pouring into continental Europe illegally and undercutting Mediterranean producers. Maybe the notorious diesel smugglers of South Armagh would transport barrels of another oily product along the lanes and ‘B’ roads that cross the Irish land border, if the EU compromises on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The official expanded upon his remarks later, emphasising that olive oil was only one example of the dire risk of British goods, apparently destined for Northern Ireland, making their way into Europe eventually. Sugar, oranges or children’s toys could also cross the Irish Sea and threaten the single market’s integrity.

On social media, the UK’s former Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, did not hide his contempt for this argument. “Isn’t it time for the EU to be sensible and find a sustainable solution on the Protocol?” he tweeted. He might easily have added, “Do you see what I had to put up with?”

At the centre of Britain’s ongoing dispute with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol, lies the EU’s legalistic interpretation of ‘risk’ to the single market. Under that Brexit deal, goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are supposed to be subjected to checks and extra documentation if they are ‘at risk’ of entering the Republic of Ireland or the rest of the EU.

Before the Irish Sea border came into force, the Government assured businesses that the joint committee would soon exempt most categories of goods from ‘at risk’ status. Only sensitive products like weapons or exotic animals would face the full rigour of the Protocol, once it was up and running. 

Unfortunately, the text made it clear that nearly every product was deemed ‘at risk’ by default. It could only be re-designated ‘not at risk’ by specific agreement with the EU through the joint committee. That meant Brussels was free to be as obstructive and unreasonable as it liked, without stepping outside the letter of the agreement.

The Government’s ‘command paper’ from last summer, co-authored by Lord Frost, correctly identified this problem and made practical suggestions to solve it. Predictably, though, the EU rejected these proposals immediately, tabled its own, much less transparent ‘solutions’, and opened seemingly interminable negotiations with the UK.

The expected deadline for these talks moved by increments from last Autumn, to the end of 2021, to the end of January, to the end of February. And now the EU believes they will continue at least through the campaign for Northern Ireland’s Assembly election, which ends on the 5th of May. It intends to negotiate ‘discreetly’ during this period, which sounds like a polite way of saying that we will not even be informed when nothing is achieved over the coming months. 

The EU and the Government originally claimed that the Protocol would safeguard the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and ensure political stability in Northern Ireland. This pretence is still maintained in official statements released by Maros Sefcovic and Liz Truss. 

Now though, thanks to the Irish Sea border, the province’s power-sharing executive has collapsed, following the resignation of the First Minister, Paul Givan. The DUP took that decision with obvious reluctance, under pressure from unionist voters, having repeatedly postponed its threat to upend the devolved government. 

An election campaign is about to be conducted in an angry, combustible atmosphere, against a backdrop of growing street protests. At the weekend, on a freezing night in County Armagh, thousands of people gathered in Markethill to express their opposition to the Irish Sea border.

The Protocol has already created social unrest and distorted trade flows, which are both cited in the deal as justifications for either side unilaterally pulling its emergency brake, Article 16.

The EU official who briefed Tony Connelly made one remark that, in theory, sounded like the basis for an eventual agreement between the UK and Brussels. The bloc apparently

‘accepted in principle the UK argument that there should be a distinction between goods that are moving GB-NI and remaining there for end users, and those goods which go on to cross the land border into the single market.’

This glimpse of common-sense was then undermined by advocating a ‘simplified customs procedure’, involving 30 data fields, for GB products moving into what is, we must remember, an integral part of the UK. EU customs codes for domestic British trade to Northern Ireland would still be required, though Brussels might consider trimming a few digits. 

In other words, the EU has no immediate intention of dropping the pretence that there’s a real risk of lorry loads of food destined for Sainsbury’s in Lisburn being diverted slyly to Dundalk, in order to compromise the single market. 

In truth, GB to NI trade poses no threat to the EU’s standards and never has done. This issue was invented to make life difficult for the UK and exacerbated by Brussels’ compulsive legalism.

Lord Frost, freed from the responsibility of actually delivering a deal, is right. It is past time that the EU was reasonable and sensible on the Protocol. But there is not a shred of evidence that that will happen within an acceptable timescale.

If the bloc’s negotiators are allowed to, they will waffle about olive oil and children’s toys until Western civilisation is on the brink of collapse.  

That means it’s up to the Government to finally act unilaterally and force some sense into Brussels. Anything less is a dereliction of duty to its citizens in Northern Ireland and the integrity of the UK.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.