Talks between the British government and the European Union will resume this week on how to resolve the long-running dispute over trade arrangements for Northern Ireland that soured the first year of post-Brexit relations.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will try to cut the Gordian knot by her predecessor, Lord David Frost, who resigned just like London late last year. start withdrawing from some of his most stringent demands.
Truss struck a warmer tone than Frost in initial contact and invited Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, to meet at her mercy and favor mansion in Chevening, Kent on Thursday night and promise “constructive proposals” to break the deadlock. .
But officials on both sides admit that they remain far apart on how to manage the new trade border in the Irish Sea. The Financial Times looks at the prospects for a deal.
The British position
Like her predecessor, Truss maintains that the Brexit agreement reached by the UK for Northern Ireland in 2019 is “unsustainable” and requires radical reform.
The Northern Ireland Protocol left the region in the EU internal market for goods to prevent a hard trade border being brought back to the island of Ireland, but it necessitated the creation of a trade border in the Irish Sea.
The British government says this trade border divides the UK’s own internal market unnecessarily and causes a blow to traders in Britain, who now face high levels of bureaucracy in sending goods from the mainland to Northern Ireland.
Truss has a tough line in a newspaper article published over the weekend and wrote that the UK “does not want to see any checks or documentation for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”.
London also wants the EU to amend part of the protocol that requires any British government subsidy decision that could have an impact on the region’s commodity market to be cleared by the European Commission in Brussels.
In addition, the UK wants to eliminate any requirement for businesses in Northern Ireland to notify the EU when goods leave the EU internal market, which is required under EU law.
Finally, the UK wants to remove the EU’s supreme court, the European Court of Justice, as the “final arbiter” of future disputes over the protocol. Instead, London wants an arbitration mechanism, with the EHJ ruling only on matters of EU law.
If Brussels does not address these concerns, Truss says she reserves the right to activate them. Article 16 safeguard clause in the protocol, which will temporarily suspend parts of the transaction while solutions are found.
She is under pressure from Conservative MPs and trade union politicians in Northern Ireland not to compromise with Brussels.
The EU position
EU officials welcomed the warmer tone of Truss, but also warned that it would not be enough to ensure a breakthrough. “We will not be seduced by a night in a country house,” said one official close to the talks.
Truss’ decision to set out her demands in a newspaper article has also upset EU countries, with patience with the UK scrapped in national capitals wanting to focus on the EU’s ambitious green agenda and Covid recovery.
“The government’s habit of speaking to Brussels through the national press shows with Truss. . . not much has changed, ”said one diplomat.
Regarding the content of the British demands for radically reduced checks, Brussels argues that there are limits to how far it can go. If Northern Ireland wants to remain in the internal market for goods, the EU must have some oversight.
“If something comes to the EU internal market. . . we need an overview, ”Sefcovic said before Christmas.
The commission has suspended legal action against the UK for failing to implement parts of the protocol while talks continue. The EU has also unilaterally moved to introduce legal changes to ensure that the protocol does not disrupt drug supplies, and last October proposed a number of measures that he said were “50 percent” customs controls and “80 percent” agri-food controls can reduce. .
However, the British government disputes that assessment, saying the EU offer falls far short of what is needed to make the protocol work.
Sefcovic has avoided putting a deadline on the talks, but the EU wants a comprehensive agreement as soon as possible, ideally before election campaigns begin in Northern Ireland in March.
The Northern Ireland position
Talks between the EU and the UK resume as the political situation in Northern Ireland becomes increasingly fragile before elections on 5 May for the region’s power-sharing government, which is seen as a referendum on the protocol.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which supports Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, is struggling to retain leadership of the devolved regional government and has threatened to oust its ministers unless London quickly finds an agreement to remove the Irish border. .
The DUP, which feels it has been misled by the Westminster government in the past, is trying to maintain pressure on Truss amid fears the British government could reach an agreement that does not live up to its demands.
Meantime, Dublin called on London and Brussels to ensure that the protocol talks do not drag on beyond February, and Northern Ireland’s business community demands that both the EU and the UK bury their political differences and find flexibility in the interests of Northern Ireland .
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the business community was “under no illusions” about the challenges negotiators will face in the next few months.
“This is perhaps our last and best chance of reaching an agreement between the EU and the UK to allow Northern Irish businesses to be competitive and retain choice and affordability for our households,” he said.
There are three roads open to Truss, all difficult to navigate.
If it activates Article 16, EU member states have made it clear that they will retaliate swiftly, including the possible suspension of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which allows for tariff- and quota-free trade between the UK and its largest market.
Conservative Union Research Unit (@ConservativeURU) 8 January 2022
If Truss accepts certain goods controls and eventual oversight from the EHJ, the commission could give more leeway to the UK to police the deal on its behalf.
But if she accepts, Truss runs the risk of blowing back from the caucus of more than 80 Brexiter conservative MPs who on Sunday tweeted support for her tough opening game as an “unambiguous” statement of intent.
Alternatively, when faced with such heinous choices, she could simply decide to keep talking, eliminate the current tensions and force the EU to take the first aggressive step, such as taking legal action against the UK he passed. years suspended, to start again.