Everything needs to be redone: according to London, the Irish protocol must be revised, rethought and rewritten. “We can’t go on like this”: Lord Frost, former chief negotiator on Brexit, now become minister in charge of relations with the European Union, told the House of Lords in Westminster.
But Brussels doesn’t fit in. The negative answer came shortly, a few hours later. “We have taken note of Lord Frost’s statements”, but the EU does not intend to renegotiate an agreement agreed and signed by both parties, said Maroš Šefčovič, vice president of the Commission. “It is important to respect international legal agreements,” he added. And indeed, at the end of the month, if the violation of the Protocol on Northern Ireland persists, Brussels will send a reasoned opinion (second stage of the infringement procedure) to the United Kingdom, and a letter of notification to the Joint Commission, to launch the consultations. for the resolution of disputes for non-compliance with the Withdrawal Agreement. In fact, the Community Executive explained this to the EU ambassadors on Thursday, after the phone call between Ursula von der Leyen, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Brussels opened the infringement procedure on 15 March.
Question and answer
The British government justified its request to substantially change the protocol with the “feverish political climate” in Northern Ireland. Customs procedures, border controls and delays in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland have caused great tension and violence in the streets.
According to the EU, this is the largely predictable consequence of an agreement that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accepted and signed in order to conclude Brexit. The de facto protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the single market and in the EU customs union to avoid the return of an internal border with the Republic of Ireland. Customs controls on goods arriving from Great Britain are therefore inevitable.
According to London, on the other hand, the practical difficulties caused by the protocol are due to the “intransigence” of the EU. In the 28-page document, Frost calls for a reopening of negotiations with Brussels, but without the involvement of the EU institutions and the European Court of Justice, unpopular with Brexit supporters. London is also calling for an immediate freezing of the situation, including the suspension of the legal action initiated by the EU against the British government for non-compliance with the pacts.
The London proposal: differentiated rules
The key London proposal is the launch of a dual regulatory system, which would allow all goods, including food, to circulate freely in Northern Ireland as long as they comply with European or British phytosanitary standards. Drugs, on the other hand, should be excluded from the protocol altogether.
But London has so far refused to remain in line with EU rules because, Frost explained, it would be a “denial of Brexit” and of British sovereignty regained at great cost.
The EU should therefore accept with confidence the British exporters’ declaration that the goods in question are destined only for Northern Ireland and will not continue to the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU.
From London also an olive branch
However, Frost was less belligerent than usual. Britain has no intention for now to tear the protocol entirely apart or invoke Article 16, which allows both sides to suspend it in circumstances of extreme difficulty. “We have decided that it is not the right time to do it,” said the minister, opting instead for new negotiations.
On the one hand, Frost cajoled, stating that “the difficulties we have in managing the protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU”. A new text, on the other hand, would lay “the strongest and long-term foundations for finding common interests”. As if to say: we find an agreement on this issue and there will be no shadows on our alliance. On the other hand, the British minister was instead immovable. The British proposals “require substantial changes to the protocol that we deem necessary to manage the situation we are facing,” he said.
Changes necessary for London and unacceptable for Brussels. The protocol problem remains unsolved and Northern Ireland remains a powder keg.