The writer is the UK Brexit Minister
When I struck a deal with the EU on our free trade deal, around the same time last year, I was hopeful that 2021 might make the UK’s new relationship with the EU work. Far from the noise, much indeed works well. But one problem remains difficult and I have spent most of the year dealing with it – the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Indeed, no one could have predicted a year ago how 2021 would develop. We saw the EU’s attempt in January to put in place a ban on the export of vaccines across the land border into Ireland; their insistence on interpreting the protocol as if it provided for a normal EU external border through the center of the UK; the invocation of an infringement procedure against us which could henceforth have been before the European Court of Justice; and political turmoil, including the departure of longtime Northern Ireland Prime Minister Arlene Foster.
Economically, supply chains began to change and trade began to be diverted. Despite the £ 500million we have pledged to make the protocol work, we have seen cuts in the supply of goods, discontinuation of drugs and increased prices for consumers.
In the summer, the practical and political difficulties generated by the protocol were obvious to all. Fortunately, we managed to stabilize the situation by presenting, in our July command document, a comprehensive and comprehensive solution to the problems.
We also decided then that the best way, if we could achieve it, was to obtain a negotiated result rather than using the guarantees contained in article 16 of the protocol. Since then, we have engaged in extensive discussions with the EU on the way forward, including on the limited EU proposals presented in October.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to make as much progress as I would have liked. With the exception of medicines, for which we will carefully and positively examine the EU’s proposals now that we have them, what Brussels has put on the table does not do enough to ease the burden or cover all the problems encountered. by the people of Northern Ireland.
Binding customs provisions for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland must be drastically changed, given the paramount importance for Northern Ireland’s economy of links with the rest of the United Kingdom, far exceeding its ties to Ireland.
The simplest solution is to put in place substantially different arrangements for goods that all parties agree will remain in the UK and those that will not, and to manage any risks that arise in a collaborative manner. The EU proposals do not do this and our expert analysis does not support the ambitious public demands that were made against them when they were published.
Likewise, Northern Ireland’s state aid rules must reflect the reality that since signing the Protocol we have adopted entirely new subsidy control rules in our Free Trade Agreement and put in place a rigorous new national regime. The rules in Northern Ireland should evolve to reflect this.
And a solution must be found on governance – the undemocratic ways in which EU laws are applied in Northern Ireland, and the role of the ECJ. I know that sometimes people dismiss this as an ideological request. But no solution can work if the European Commission can get the CJEU to judge one of our actions, as happened in March. This kind of triggering response is not the right way to achieve lasting solutions in Northern Ireland and it is clearly unfair and unreasonable that disputes between us be settled by the court of one of the parties.
We would prefer to find a comprehensive solution to these and the whole range of other difficulties. But, given the urgency, we were ready to consider an interim agreement covering the most pressing issues – trade frictions, subsidy control and the ECJ. We have proposed various possible avenues, but so far we have not found a consensus even on the content of an interim agreement.
The situation remains very problematic. A protocol that was supposed to back the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement is now undermining it. The institutions of Northern Ireland are clearly under threat.
The most recent poll last week showed that 78% of people in Northern Ireland want at least one change to the current arrangements.
As long as there is no agreed solution, the guarantees of Article 16 remain on the table. They may turn out to be the only way to solve problems. But it’s always better to find a negotiated way if we can. Hurry up. Talks must therefore resume with renewed urgency in the new year if we are to achieve a result that benefits everyone in Northern Ireland. The UK will work for it.