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There was always a strong element of “buy now, pay later” with Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal — and never more so than when it came to Northern Ireland.
In October 2019 Johnson “got Brexit done” by signing up to a trade border in the Irish Sea that Theresa May had said “no British prime minister” could ever agree to — it was a Faustian bargain that paid off handsomely that December in the shape of an 80-seat majority.
It also turned the key on the hardest possible Brexit, since with Northern Ireland consigned to the regulatory orbit of the EU, the rest of the United Kingdom (Great Britain) was free to set the fully divergent course on which we are now steering.
The deal that David Frost negotiated is based on not committing to regulatory alignment with the EU, and so contains no Swiss-style agreement to reduce vet and other plant and animal checks — which of course thickens that border in the Irish Sea.
(It’s worth recalling that the alternative accepted by May was based on ensuring “no emergence of regulatory divergence” with the EU, that required the UK remaining in the EU single market for goods).
These are the facts of the case, and they are no less true for being consistently denied and obfuscated by the Johnson government.
But there are other facts, too, that cannot be avoided as Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic meet in London on Thursday in order to try to settle increasing differences over the practical operation of that Irish Sea trade border Johnson created.
Firstly, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, even if it is now following EU customs rules. Secondly, Northern Ireland remains politically divided and fragile; the Good Friday Agreement is a constant work in progress and for some years has been stalling.
Thirdly, both the EU and the UK agreed to this unsatisfactory arrangement jointly. And so, fourthly, they have a joint responsibility to make it work because — fifthly, lastly, and most importantly — there is no alternative to it.
This last point is important. Neither London, Dublin or Brussels wants the return of a north-south border and the UK government is not about to ensure “no regulatory divergence” and rejoin the EU customs union, so the choice is made: a border in the Irish Sea. And in the absence of alternatives, both sides need to make that work.
(And you can forget the fantasies about “alternative arrangements” — just look at the operation of the current Irish Sea border even before the grace periods expire and the “full-fat” protocol is applied. Technology can facilitate borders, not magic them away).
Which brings us to Thursday’s meeting, which takes place in a pretty poor atmosphere, following the European Commission’s ham-fisted triggering of Article 16 temporarily suspending the protocol in order to render watertight its controls on the export of Covid-19 vaccines.
Gove’s response demanding an “urgent reset” to the protocol — and a bunch of derogations and extensions — was seen as opportunistic and over-the-top in Brussels. His accusation this week that the EU was putting “integrationist theology” over the peace process did nothing to cool tempers.
EU officials say Sefcovic’s strongly-worded response should be seen in that light — a like-for-like riposte — designed in part to appease the concerns of EU member states (including France and Germany) that think Johnson is using the Article 16 blunder to avoid the reality of what he signed.
The animus on both sides is understandable. If they stopped for a second, Johnson’s fellow EU leaders could empathise with the emotive nature of creating an internal border in their own countries — but equally the Johnson government has to accept that last year’s threat to unilaterally rewrite the protocol poisoned the well, destroying a sense of trust on which successful operation of such a tricky agreement always depended.
This absence of trust remains a huge problem for the operation of both wings of the agreement — the protocol and the main trade and co-operation agreement (TCA) — and it is the rebuilding of that trust that will fix them.
On Northern Ireland, Sefcovic’s letter actually points to a solution. The first half is a litany of complaints about UK failure to properly implement the protocol — share data, do the agreed checks. It then notes fixing this is a “prerequisite” to further facilitations.
And this is where a compromise lies. When Gove says it’s nonsense that the protocol prevents a bulb being shipped from Bedford to be planted in a back garden in Ballymena, he’s right in my view — but the UK needs to be able to show that’s exactly where the bulb is going.
Data and its verification is the foundation of the necessary trust, but equally there are many ways to provide that data in a way that is proportionate to the actual risk, and which respects the “unique circumstances” of Northern Ireland.
Listening to Northern Irish logistics experts giving evidence to the Northern Ireland affairs committee on Wednesday, they seemed clear that the processes could be simplified and still be watertight, particularly for big supermarkets. Bear in mind that the protocol is currently operating under a grace period, the “full-fat” version doesn’t come into force until April.
And that is where the EU needs to move, because the second half of Sefcovic’s letter implicitly says that the Irish Sea border is no different from the Dover-Calais border, which ignores the political and historical realities. In the light of these, there must be a “fix” to enable a pet, or a blind dog, to go from Birmingham to Belfast without £200-worth of vet checks, per dog, per trip?
Tempers are running dangerously high. As Micheál Martin, the Irish Taoiseach bluntly put it, all sides need to “cool it”, because hasty and unilateral actions by either side — as the commission amply demonstrated two weeks ago — have dangerous consequences.
It’s a deeply flawed arrangement, but in the absence of politically viable alternatives (see above) one that has to be made to work.
Useful data on how business is dealing with Brexit has been hard to come by in these first six weeks of the operation of the TCA, with Covid-19 and pre-Christmas stockpiling rendering year-on-year comparisons next to meaningless.
But we are now starting to get an early picture of how the deal is landing — for example today’s British Chambers of Commerce survey that finds that half of businesses, particularly SMEs, are struggling to adapt.
Even this data has to be read in the light of the fact that the TCA came so late in the day that it is hardly surprising that businesses already struggling with Covid and cash flow have encountered difficulties.
The deeper question is whether in exposed sectors, such as chemicals for example, these difficulties will lead to a permanent reduction in trade with the EU which, before Brexit, accounted for 48 per cent of total UK trade.
A second industry survey (see chart above) by the British Coatings Federation whose members rely heavily on exports to the EU for sales of their paints and printing inks, found that “seven out of 10” believe their opportunities to trade with the EU will decrease as a result of the TCA.
That’s not a great indicator of confidence, but of course such industry predictions are based on only six Covid-wracked weeks of trading. And industry has been over-gloomy in the past. Whether those fears are borne out by the stats a year from now, we’ll have to wait and see.