The UK has launched an attempt to substantially rewrite the Noord-Ierland Brexit protocol that Boris Johnson signed up to in 2019, arguing “we cannot go on as we are” given the “ongoing febrile political climate” in the region.
But as he unveiled the UK’s blueprint for an alternative, the Brexit secretary stopped short of ripping up the document completely or arguing the time was right to trigger the article 16 provision that enables either the UK or EU to suspend part of the arrangements in extreme circumstances.
“These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol,” David Frost said. “We do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face”.
In a foreword to the 28-page document, Frost and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis say the proposals will “not dispense with many of its [Northern Ireland protocol] concepts” but hope to create “a stronger long-term foundation to achieve shared interests”. They add that the situation in Northern Ireland is “unsatisfactory” to “all sides” .
Speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Frost called for a “new balance” in the protocol that will address the disruption to business and the trade barriers across the Irish Sea.
He said negotiations with the EU “have not got to the heart of the problem” and called for a temporary “standstill” period including the suspension of all legal action by the EU, and the operation of grace periods to allow continued trade of goods such as chilled meats including sausages.
The UK also wants to scrap the involvement of EU institutions and the European court of justice in policing and governing the protocol, something that will be anathema to Brussels.
Frost said the UK was “willing to explore exceptional arrangements around data sharing and cooperation” and “penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland”.
The latter has echoes of the “honesty box” concept first floated in 2019 as an alternative to the Irish border backstop, which proponents said would have done away with the need for border checks allowing businesses to self-report the movement of goods with an online system for VAT payments.
“The difficulties we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU,” Frost warned, adding that there is still time to do a fresh deal rather than walk away by triggering article 16.
“We concluded that it is not the right moment to do so,” said Frost.
“It is not time to establish a new balance, which both the UK and the EU can invest in, to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU.”
He told the Lords that the protocol had already led to reductions in supermarket product lines in shop shelves in Belfast and beyond, met 200 suppliers deciding they would no longer supply to the region.
He also said 20% of all documentary checks conducted on animal-derived products coming into the EU were being conducted in Northern Ireland, a country with a population of just 1.8 miljoen.
“What is worse, these burdens will worsen, not improve over time, as grace periods expire," hy het gesê.