Government seeks Northern Ireland protocol rewrite

Proposals ‘require significant change’ admits minister, but EU says it will not agree to renegotiate the deal

By Adam Payne

22 Jul 2021

The government has called for the Northern Ireland protocol to be fundamentally changed, with Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis warning "we cannot go on as we are".

Lewis and Lord Frost, the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the UK's relations with the EU, unveiled the UK's plan to overhaul the post-Brexit treaty to Parliament on Wednesday afternoon.

The plan, set out in a twenty-page command paper, calls for an end to checks on goods heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, arguing that businesses trading across the Irish Sea should be trusted to self-report the destination of their goods.

Goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have been subject to checks and paperwork since 1 January, by virtue of Northern Ireland continuing to follow the EU's trading rules.

However, the government argues the EU is taking an overzealous approach to enforcing the rules that is causing undue disruption to businesses and day-to-day life in Northern Ireland.

The UK also wants the European Court of Justice to no longer enforce the Northern Ireland Protocol, arguing it is the "most unusual feature" of the agreement struck last year as part of Brexit talks between Boris Johnson's government and Brussels.

"These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol. We do not shy away from that," Lewis told MPs, acknowledging the scale of changes sought by the government.

"We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face."

In a foreword to the paper, Johnson said the "profound" economic, political, and social impact of the protocol had triggered unrest among some unionist communities, which made him consider suspending it altogether by triggering Article 16 of the treaty.

However, the UK wants to follow a "consensual path" to finding solutions with the EU, he added.

The highly-anticipated proposals come after weeks of talks with Brussels on how the Northern Ireland protocol can be changed to make it less disruptive to trade coming from Great Britain.

Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president, said the EU had taken note of the proposals and would "continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today."

"We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland," he said.

However, Sefcovic warned: "We will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol."

One EU source told PoliticsHome the proposals were tantamount to a "complete renegotiation of the protocol" which European leaders would not agree to in their current form.

Brussels argues the friction affecting trade across the Irish Sea is exactly what the UK signed up when it agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol late last year. The command paper calls on the EU to agree a "standstill" so current arrangements for Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade – including grace periods – remain in place indefinitely, "creating room to negotiate without further cliff edge."

As part of a standstill, the government has also asked the EU to pause legal action it is taking against the UK for unilateral action it took on the Northern Ireland Protocol earlier this year.

The two sides are under pressure to find solutions for the Protocol this summer before a huge wave of new paperwork hits British businesses sending goods to buyers in the province in October.

Louise Haigh, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary said the government's approach to the protocol had "damaged trust" in the UK and "fanned the flames of instability" in Northern Ireland.

"As ever, in the middle of this are the communities and businesses of Northern Ireland who have been repeatedly failed," Haigh said.

Aodhan Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, urged the government to resist pursuing its proposals without the agreement of the EU, saying "any solution needs to be agreed with EU, as without this, there can be no stability."

He added: “Northern Ireland is in a unique situation which requires a unique solution that is agreed by both the UK and EU. There is a real urgency now to deliver an agreed solution that works for consumers."

A senior negotiating source on the UK side said the government briefed the US on its proposals, with President Joe Biden keeping a close eye on how the Northern Ireland protocol develops.

Ned Price, spokesperson for the US State Department, on Tuesday said the White House would be "watching" the UK's actions and urged both sides to negotiate "within existing mechanisms."

Adam is areporter for CSW's sister titles PoliticsHome and The House Magazine, where a version of this story first appeared.

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