24 November 2021

Hard Frost – the Brexit minister is right to take a firm stance on the Protocol

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‘An issue of the highest national interest,’ the Brexit minister Lord Frost told the the Centre for Policy Studies’ Margaret Thatcher conference. ‘is to make sure we can trade freely within our own country. I don’t think that’s too much to ask and that’s where we need to get to – one way or the other.’

His comments followed an article in the week’s Mail on Sunday, in which he warned that the government will ‘safeguard’ Northern Ireland’s integral position in the UK ‘in other ways’, if it cannot reach an agreement with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol. This tough talk was interpreted as a renewed threat to trigger Article 16, the deal’s emergency brake, which allows ministers to suspend aspects of the Irish Sea border that cause ‘serious difficulties’.

In contrast, the international trade secretary, Ann-Marie Trevelyan, told the Daily Telegraph that the UK would not take this step before Christmas. A spokesman for Number 10 later clarified that there was no ‘timetable’ for invoking the clause. ‘We continue to believe that the conditions for triggering that safety mechanism… have been met,’ he said.

It was just the latest in a series of mixed messages, coming from either side of the negotiations.

Last week, Brussels’ chief negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, implied a ‘change in tone’ from Frost indicated that the talks might be close to achieving a breakthrough. Over the weekend, though, the two men were back to exchanging barbs, with Lord Frost demanding more ‘urgency’ from the EU, while Sefcovic said he was ‘the only one who is pushing for urgent solutions.’

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the province is preparing for Christmas without Marks & Spencer’s ‘click and collect’ service, thanks to the Irish Sea border disrupting delivery schedules. There is still uncertainty about the supply of drugs in 2022, when Brussels is due to take charge of Ulster’s medicine regime. And 20% of the total number of external border checks for the whole EU are taking place on the comparatively tiny quantity of goods arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.

For that reason, Northern Irish unionists will be heartened to read Lord Frost reiterating the principle that goods from Great Britain should not be treated, ‘as if they were moving from one country to another,’ when they are destined to remain in the province.

The EU claims its proposals will cut customs checks by up to 50% and recently offered to make this plan legally binding. That would still leave Northern Ireland facing an extraordinary, punitive number of checks on goods that are at little risk of entering Brussels’ single market. And the EU’s calculations seem to be based on the formalities that would take place if the Protocol were implemented in full. Currently, ‘grace periods’ have delayed the sea border’s worst effects, to allow food and parcels to keep moving into the province.

The chairman of Marks and Spencer, Archie Norman, warned last week that the EU’s plans would cut costs and bureaucracy in Northern Ireland less effectively than grace periods. Brussels’ offer, in other words, is not even an improvement on the current situation, which has already caused so many problems for businesses and consumers.

Last week, a spokesman for the Road Haulage Association in Northern Ireland, John Martin, described the EU’s ‘non paper’ as ‘only window dressing’. Polling shows that the Northern Ireland public is open to some form of Protocol, but only 2% of voters disagree with the government’s proposals to allow goods from the rest of Britain to move freely to the province. Its ‘command paper’ is backed by substantial majorities of both unionists and nationalists, according to a University of Liverpool survey.

Many unionists in Ulster remain cynical about the current negotiations with the EU and predict that they will fail ultimately to restore the province’s full place in the UK internal market. Chastened by past experiences, they expect the Government to capitulate at the last moment. On Saturday, Ben Lowry, the editor of the Belfast News Letter, the region’s main pro-Union newspaper, predicted that ‘Article 16 is now unlikely to be triggered’.

At the same time, Lord Frost has diagnosed the main problems with the Protocol accurately. He implies that, at the end of the negotiation, goods from Great Britain must, at a minimum, be able to enter Northern Ireland without checks and extra paperwork. In his article on Sunday he wrote, ‘The current problems with the protocol go to the heart of our territorial integrity, of what it means to be one country and one market. They will not disappear.’

As if to emphasise this point, republican protesters, including leading members of Sinn Fein, protested at the Irish land border over the weekend, keen to protect the protocol. Quite simply, that’s because it dilutes Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and strengthens the Republic’s political and economic influence over the province, contrary to the Belfast Agreement and the will of a majority of voters.

The protocol’s effects on trade are serious and undeniable. Its impact on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is combustible. And in the long-term it is likely to weaken the ties that bind together the whole United Kingdom.

Lord Frost and Boris Johnson have a chance to repair this damage over the next week or so. If they are do so successfully, they must remain firm in their negotiating stance and fix the protocol properly in conjunction with the EU, or trigger Article 16 and do it themselves, irrespective of the confected rage that may cause in Dublin, Washington and Brussels.

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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.