The writer is the UK’s Brexit minister
This week European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and I will meet in London for the first UK/EU Partnership Council established under our new trade agreement. This is a historic moment. For all the early friction, to be expected given the huge change in our relationship, I am confident we can resolve ongoing difficulties as friendly trading partners and sovereign equals.
We will also review the withdrawal agreement and the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Here things are more difficult.
When we agreed this new protocol in 2019, we did so in order to remove the old disastrous “backstop” and to enable Brexit to happen, but to do so in a way that maintained our overriding priority of protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and avoiding a hard border. It was a delicate balance, formed in a spirit of compromise. We expected to be able to operate it in a way which respected the sensitive politics in Northern Ireland — after all that was the point of making special arrangements in the first place.
We now have experience in operating the protocol. This government has put huge resources into making it work. We have a Trader Support Scheme to help those sending goods to Northern Ireland, we fund vets and health certificates, we carry out checks at Larne and Belfast. We enforce EU law in Northern Ireland as required. We take no lectures on whether we are implementing the protocol — we are.
But because we are operating under the EU’s legal framework we have very limited discretion to operate the rules in a way which makes sense on the ground in Northern Ireland.
As a result the balance we hoped for has not been found. We are seeing political turbulence, with the loss of First Minister Arlene Foster, the change of the UUP leadership and street protests. And there are real world impacts on lives and livelihoods. We underestimated the effect of the protocol on goods movements to Northern Ireland, with some suppliers in Great Britain simply not sending their products because of the time-consuming paperwork required. We’ve seen manufacturers of medicines cutting supply. And there is less choice on supermarket shelves for consumers. The NI Retail Consortium has warned that when the grace period ends in October, supermarkets will face “real, severe problems”.
We are working round the clock to resolve these problems consensually. We have sent a range of policy papers to the EU to outline solutions. Just last week, we sent a detailed proposal for a veterinary agreement based on equivalence and for an authorised trader scheme to reduce paperwork and checks. But we have had very little back.
We want an approach based on the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. That means putting the Good Friday Agreement first and supporting rather than undermining the political process and the institutions. This is perfectly compatible with a prudent risk-based approach to protecting the EU’s single market too, and we accept our share of responsibility in that as a neighbour and exporter.
But it also requires a common sense and risk-based approach from the EU as well. The EU needs a new playbook for dealing with neighbours, one that involves pragmatic solutions between friends, not the imposition of one side’s rules on the other and legal purism.
In 2019 we agreed, as a huge compromise and for the greater good, to control certain goods movements within our own country and customs territory. If that situation is not to be totally unsustainable we need to be able to do so in ways which do not disrupt everyday life and which respect everyone’s identity and interests. We continue to work for negotiated solutions which achieve this. But time is starting to run out. We need to see progress soon. I hope we can this week.