Analysis: mutually-agreed temporary fix is welcome but both sides have very different views of way forward
Brussels has wisely taken the sizzle and spice out of the “sausage war” between the UK and the EU, but the fundamental problem is that Boris Johnson is still seemingly unwilling to stomach the consequences of Brexit he has chosen.
The announcement of a mutually agreed temporary fix to the problem of whether British bangers can be sold in Northern Ireland has to be seen as a positive.
Few would want the vocabulary of war, trade or otherwise, to have any place in issues relating to Northern Ireland in 2021, but this was where things were a few weeks ago, with the talk of tariffs and tit-for-tat measures over the UK’s failure to implement the Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement.
Sensibly, the EU has recognised that no matter how frustrating the UK government might be, there are bigger things at stake. The rhetoric has been dialled down.
What is less rosy is that the fix – a three-month extension of a grace period on the rules regarding sausages and mince – came accompanied by two unilateral statements, offering rather different understandings, and highlighting the fundamental problem that the prime minister’s choices have thrown up.
For the EU it is time to implement what was agreed, while the UK sees it as a time to renegotiate. What actually now occurs is probably somewhere in the middle – but the tension between the positions will continue to be difficult to handle.
Johnson signed up to an arrangement in the autumn of 2019 that directed that all goods travelling to Northern Ireland from Great Britain would have to follow EU rules.
There is a commitment from both sides to make this as light-touch as possible within EU law, but everything that Brussels experiences from the way this government acts suggests that it regards light-touch as being no touch at all.
For example, in the issue at hand today: under EU rules, chilled meats, including “meat preparations” such as sausages, have to be sent frozen into the bloc from a non-EU country with which it does not have an all-encompassing veterinary agreement. This applies to trade from Britain, as Northern Ireland has in effect stayed in the single market for goods under the terms of protocol.
This was explicitly accepted by the UK government in annex two of the protocol and reaffirmed last December when a six-month grace period was agreed to allow businesses in Northern Ireland to adjust their supply chains in order to secure such goods locally or from the Republic of Ireland.
Now we hear the prime minister suggest there was no such recognition by the UK and it would be clear madness for anyone to consider any such thing.
That is quite difficult for Brussels to digest and it is a pointer to the wider problem in the relationship.
The UK’s decision not to align with EU standards in plant and animal products has introduced a range of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on plant and animal products. There are document checks, identity checks and physical checks. This has already led to some British products not being available in shops in Northern Ireland due to the added expense to retailers. It is a red rag to some in the loyalist community. Tension is high. It is also proving to be a greater hindrance than expected by Downing Street to trade between the UK and the 27 EU member states.
The EU has offered, despite repeated rejection, a temporary Switzerland-style agreement under which the UK would align with Brussels’ rulebook for a period and 80% of the checks would disappear. Johnson and his Brexit minister, Lord Frost, don’t like this. It smacks of rule-taking and they believe it will stand in the way of a trade deal with the US. The EU restricts the use of hormones and the chemical washing of animal carcasses, both of which are staples of the US agri-food sector.
The UK has suggested something a little more flexible to Brussels, under which checks can be spared for as long the government sticks with its current standards. Discussions would be had if there was a change of policy by either side as to whether it is significant enough for controls to be newly necessary.
The precise form of this proposal is unclear. But what baffles Brussels is that the government has repeatedly said it has no intention of lowering its standards. They see “Brexit purism” standing in the way of pragmatic solutions. It is evidently the case that Johnson wants to have his sausage and to eat it. But it isn’t sustainable.
Twenty-point agreement affirms two countries’ commitment to ‘strategic unity of Europe’
The initiative, which has been under preparation for some time, comes before Friday’s visit to the UK by the outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, during which she will meet the prime minister and the Queen.
The agreement, released coincidentally the day after England had dumped Germany out of the European football championships, reflects Germany’s strong desire to maintain close relations with the UK despite its disappointment at Brexit. The two sides have agreed to set up a new strategic dialogue that will involve the foreign ministers and political directors from both countries meeting once a year for a specific bilateral summit.
It is probably the first of three bilateral agreements that the UK intends to seal with its largest European partners, which also include France and Italy.
The Foreign Office also states in the declaration that it supports Germany’s application to become a permanent member of the currently five-strong UN security council. British support for a longstanding German demand hardly requires the UK to expend great diplomatic capital, but is seen as important in Berlin.
Boris Johnson and Mrs Merkel, who is due to step down later this year, will discuss Covid travel restrictions, trade and post-Brexit relations.
The meeting will take place at the prime minister's country residence of Chequers, in Buckinghamshire.
Mrs Merkel will later visit the Queen at Windsor Castle.
The chancellor, in power since 2005, is thought to want to ban all UK tourists from entering the European Union because of concerns over the Delta Covid variant.
Mr Johnson is expected to announce the latest steps towards ending lockdown in England over the next few days, with international travel high on the agenda.
In contrast to Mrs Merkel, he said on Thursday that double vaccinations could be a "liberator" as millions of people plan their summer break.
The Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, has called on Downing Street to “reciprocate the generosity of spirit” shown by EU leaders on the Northern Ireland protocol after they extended the grace period allowing chilled meats to be shipped to the nation from Britain.
On Saturday, Martin said “warning each other is over” and called for engagement to find solutions through the withdrawal agreement.
It came after UK cabinet ministers ramped up pressure for concessions on the protocol by warning of disruption to peace if changes are not made.
Martin said: “I think the British government should acknowledge the approach of the EU this week in terms of the extension of the grace period and also in terms of the facilitation around the medicines issue.
“There is no question that the European Commission and the European Union leaders have demonstrated goodwill and a generosity of spirit towards the British government in resolving this issue.
“It really is time for British government to reciprocate the generosity of spirit that European leaders have shown. And also the sense of flexibility that Europe has indicated to the UK that it is willing to deploy, in respect of the workingout of issues pertaining to the protocol.
“The time for warning each other is over. It’s time for engagement, constructive engagement, with a view to reaching a resolution.”
The EU decision on chilled meats, after a request from the UK, avoids a trade dispute by delaying the ban until 30 September while efforts continue to find a lasting solution to measures which prevent a hard border in Ireland.
The UK government accepted as annex two of the protocol a measure stating that chilled meats, including “meat preparations” such as sausages, have to be sent frozen into the bloc from non-EU states without a mutual and all-encompassing veterinary agreement. The UK’s decision not to align with EU standards in plant and animal products has led to a range of sanitary checks on plant and animal products.
UK cabinet ministers have been calling for concessions on the protocol, saying that “a seriously unbalanced situation” has developed in the operation of the agreement.
In a joint article in the Irish Times, Brexit minister Lord Frost and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said this week’s extension of a grace period in the so-called sausage war was welcome but “addresses only a small part of the underlying problem”.
The pair warned the EU that the protocol, negotiated as part of the Brexit deal, risks “damage” to the Good Friday agreement, which in 1998 helped to secure peace after decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, unless a “new balance” is found in terms of customs checks.
Frost and Lewis urged Brussels to adopt a softer approach to the implementation of the protocol, which the former helped to negotiate.
The EU fears that Boris Johnson wants to “dismantle” the Northern Ireland protocol, the Irish foreign minister has said, as relations between Brussels and London deteriorate again after remarks by the Brexit minister David Frost in the past 24 hours.
Simon Coveney told RTÉ on Sunday that EU leaders feared the worst after what he felt was a provocative article written by Lord Frost and the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, in the Irish Times on Saturday.
“Many in the EU are interpreting the UK’s response as essentially saying: ‘Look, concessions don’t matter. What is required now is to dismantle elements of the protocol piece by piece,’” he said, adding. “That is going to cause huge problems.”
Coveney expressed bafflement over the article coming just days after a three-month pause was agreed between Brussels and London in the trade dispute over the sale of sausages from Great Britain in Northern Ireland.
In a sign of the continuing fragility of relations between the EU and the UK, Coveney complained that London has barely acknowledged the EU’s flexibility on the protocol including a pledge to remove barriers to the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland. The article states: “New cancer drugs can’t be licensed for Northern Ireland.”
Coveney told RTÉ’s This Week the article was “a very strange way to make friends and build partnerships” coming two days after the EU and the UK agreed to extend the deadline over the sale of sausages and chilled meats.
In the piece Frost and Lewis say Wednesday’s agreement was “welcome” but that it addressed “only a small part of the underlying problem”, claiming the “process to resolve all these difficulties” was “creating a series of rolling crises as we lurch from one deadline to another”.
Coveney suggested this was another attempt to lay blame at the EU’s door as it was the UK that had requested a three-month delay.
He said: “Making statements like the EU are taking ‘a theological approach frozen in time that doesn’t deal with the reality that exists’, an exact quote from that article, is essentially blaming the EU for not being able to implement the protocol.
“The truth here is the only side that has shown flexibility … has been the EU. The challenge here is that both sides have to take responsibility and ownership.”
Coveney also accused the UK of stoking political sensitivities in Northern Ireland.
“The contribution from the British government isn’t helping that [peace and stability], because every time Lord Frost or the secretary of state for Northern Ireland says the protocol is not sustainable, that reinforces in the minds of many people who are concerned and frustrated by the protocol, that the protocol needs to change.
“Instead what needs to happen here is that the EU and the UK have got to work in partnership,” Coveney said.
The article states that the UK needs “constructive and ambitious discussion with the EU which deal with the actual reality”. It says “opposition is growing” against the protocol in Northern Ireland, which “is not a stable basis for the future”.
The ministers say that “consent is also fraying because there is a sense that the current arrangements could corrode the link between NI and the rest of the UK”, pointing out that in 2018 inward trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was “five times” greater than imports from the Republic of Ireland.
In separate remarks in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Frost said it was reasonable to suggest resetting the protocol now that the implications of it on the ground were known, with particular opposition in unionist and loyalist communities.
“It just doesn’t seem unreasonable to us to say: these arrangements aren’t working out quite as we both thought. Look at the effects and the way it’s playing out; we really should take another look at how it’s happening.”
Boris Johnson has warned of an “exodus” of Jewish people from Northern Ireland as a consequence of the protocol he agreed as part of his Brexit deal.
Mr Johnson told MPs he had been approached by representatives of the Jewish community in the province who said they were experiencing difficulties obtaining kosher food because of the application of post-Brexit trade rules which the PM negotiated and signed in 2019 and which began coming into effect in January.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Johnson again attempted to blame the European Union’s implementation of the new regulations for disruption of food supplies.
He suggested that the onus was on the EU, rather than the UK, to make concessions in the joint committee set up to oversee the operations of the Northern Ireland protocol, which avoided a hard border with the Republic by effectively creating a customs border in the Irish Sea.
Mr Johnson told MPs: “Only yesterday, there were very serious representations from the Jewish community in Northern Ireland who pointed out that because of the problem with the food sector, it was becoming difficult to for them to have timely access - or any access - to kosher food.
“They talking now about an exodus from Northern Ireland by the by the Jewish community.
“Clearly, we want to do everything we can to avoid that and to sort it out.
“But it’s going to take our friends in the joint committee to make some movement and to make that movement pretty fast.”
He indicated that the UK government is not planning any concessions on its side to help resolve the situation.
“I think we’ve been very clear that we are implementing the protocol,” he said. “The UK is a faithful obedient servant of the law.
“The things that I have described are a direct result of what UK officials are doing in upholding the law and obeying the EU jurisdiction.
“The problem is that I think - and I think any impartial listener of this conversation would think - the way the EU is trying to implement the protocol is currently grossly disproportionate and unnecessary.”
Recently during a television debate, when asked about the Northern Ireland protocol and its impact on trade from Britain, I used the phrase “Where you get your sausages from does not define your identity”.
While out of context it may seem glib, in reality it goes right to the heart of the some of the issues from the protocol. On the surface, a dispute between the UK government and the EU over the import of chilled meats has been amplified and turned by some into false claims that national sovereignty and the constitutional future of this region are at risk. On that same TV show, the DUP’s Gavin Robinson spoke about the protocol and appeared to be like the rest of his party – in complete denial about how we got here and where we go from here.
The protocol is far from perfect – I voted against it in the European parliament, while my colleague Stephen Farry did likewise at Westminster when better arrangements were still at least notionally available. But the protocol is the product of Brexit, and in particular the choices made by the government and many unionist politicians, who pushed for a hard Brexit. In the absence of any plausible alternative, it is the means to address the challenges posed by Brexit to a shared and interdependent Northern Ireland. Those opposed to the protocol continue to engage in fantasy politics, calling for its removal but not providing any workable solutions for what would replace it.
Alliance, the party I lead, warned from the beginning of the referendum campaign that Brexit was always going to entail new barriers and frictions. Coming out of the EU meant there would be a trade barrier, it was just a matter of where. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is crossable in hundreds of locations – in lanes, in fields and in streets. Therefore, the most likely place for any trade barrier was always going to be our ports and airports, as it is far easier for the authorities to manage.
Despite not causing this situation, the adults in the room must think about how we deal with it in practical terms. The recent high court ruling in the case seeking a judicial review of the protocol brought by some of those same opponents confirmed it is legal and that Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK via the principle of consent, which is hardwired into the EU withdrawal agreement.
We have proposed workable solutions to ease some of the tensions being experienced, including in particular a UK-EU veterinary agreement around sanitary and phytosanitary checks, and the associated export health certificates, which would address the problems around food and pet movements from Britain to the EU.
Adoption of a Swiss-style system could see about 80% of checks across the Irish Sea removed. Furthermore, it would be of huge assistance to all UK agrifood exported to the EU. Yet, due to Brexit purity and outmoded notions of sovereignty, the UK government refuses to take this most logical step. Indeed, the government is playing a rather dangerous political game. In Northern Ireland, especially with the marching season upon us, calm and honesty from all quarters is required.
It knows there is no alternative to the protocol. It knows that to renounce the protocol would have major consequences for the trade and cooperation agreement and for wider international partnerships, especially with the Biden administration in the US. Yet the government continues to deny the reality of the protocol that it negotiated, signed and put through parliament.
It continues to dramatise rather to de-escalate the narrative around the protocol. Indeed, last week we saw the EU and UK jointly agree an extension to the grace period around chilled meats, including sausages, and commitments around medicines, assistance dogs, livestock movements and car insurance. Yet there was barely a word of acknowledgment from the government.
Furthermore, while we look for solutions to frictions experienced, we must also promote the opportunities the protocol provides. Northern Ireland has been given a unique opportunity to have unfettered access to the Great British and EU markets. We need to capitalise on that by minimising the downsides and exploiting the upsides.
It has suited this prime minister to engage in cliched rhetoric around a “sausage war”. Brexit and its consequences are much more serious than that. But ultimately, people in Northern Ireland who are British will be no more or less British due to the protocol, no matter where they get their sausages.
• Naomi Long is leader of Alliance, MLA for Belfast East and justice minister in the Northern Ireland executive
Figure of £40.8bn buried in EU’s 2020 accounts dismissed by UK as not reflecting amount it will pay
The UK’s Brexit “divorce bill” is €47.5bn (£40.8bn) according to estimates from Brussels that are higher than the government’s forecasts.
The first tranche, €6.8bn, is due for payment by the end of the year.
The final bill, buried in the European Union’s consolidated annual accounts for 2020, is significantly higher than an earlier estimate from the UK’s fiscal watchdog.
In 2018 the Office for Budget Responsibility put the Brexit bill at €41.4bn (£37.1bn). During the Brexit negotiations, British government officials said the final bill would be around £35-39bn.
The bill covers the UK’s share of EU debts and liabilities during 47 years of membership, such as paying for infrastructure projects, pensions and sickness benefits for EU officials.
It was one of three big issues the government agreed with the EU in the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed by Boris Johnson in December 2019, after the prime minister won a thumping majority on a promise to “get Brexit done”. The other main elements of the deal were citizens’ rights and the Northern Ireland protocol, which the UK is now seeking to change.
The 2020 accounts have yet to be signed off by the EU’s auditors, but the Brexit bill is thought unlikely to change.
Ireland’s member of the court of Auditors, Tony Murphy, told national broadcaster RTÉ News, which first reported the figure, that the €47.5bn figure could be seen as definitive.
“While the 2020 EU consolidated accounts published by the Commission are as of yet provisional, the court has completed its audit work on these accounts,” Murphy said in a statement to the broadcaster. “For all intent and purposes the figures published by the Commission are definitive.”
While the EU accounts may not change, UK government sources said the exercise was an accounting estimate, rather than an official figure. Some liabilities may never materialise, for example if recipients of EU loans pay back all the money rather than default.
The largest share of the Brexit bill, €36bn, is to pay for EU infrastructure and social projects agreed by previous UK governments. Much of the rest consists of EU liabilities, including pensions and sickness insurance for retired EU officials, former EU commissioners and MEPs.
The government is also due a share of the EU’s assets, including €1.8bn in fines levied on companies. As the EU’s competition regulator, the Commission regularly fines rule-breaking companies and the UK is entitled to a share of any sums levied during its membership.
A UK government spokesperson said: “This is just an accounting estimate, and does not reflect the exact amount the UK is expected to pay to the EU this year.
“We will publish detail on payments to and from the EU made under the financial settlement in the EU finances statement later this year.”
The final bill is not expected to be settled for many years, although the UK has the option to make earlier repayments.
Boris Johnson once said the EU “could go whistle” if they expected the UK to pay a divorce bill, but later accepted that the UK had to clear its debts in order to negotiate a trade deal.
Conservative MPs who hyped the potential benefits of Brexit for the fishing industry have been accused of quietly abandoning any mention of the issue after promised gains failed to materialise.
The National Federation of Fisherman's Organisations (NFFO) said on Wednesday that even the "most vociferous supporters" in the Tory parliamentary party had gone "very quiet" since the signing of Boris Johnson's deal.
It comes after fishing representative bodies accused the prime minister of a "betrayal" and for weaving a "tale of woe, very far away from the sea of opportunity that some spoke about".
"Those Conservative MPs that were our most vociferous supporters were very quiet, about the implications of the TCA [trade and cooperation agreement]. That's the world that we're having to adjust to," said Barrie Deas, chief executive of the NFFO in a briefing with journalists on Wednesday.
"The European Research Group, for example quite often referred to fishing as a poster child [for Brexit] but I don't think any of them came out and said this is a bad deal for fishing. Their eye was on the main prize, which of course was the trade agreement."
Mr Deas reiterated the widely held industry position the agreement signed with the EU had been a "sell-out", keeping the situation more or less unchanged until at least 2026. And he said Brussels was "quietly confident" that it could use future negotiations to prolong the status quo indefinitely.
"It's really quite hard to convey how sudden the industry's fall from grace was. In December last year we were the kind of the poster child for Brexit, and we were very much looking forward to a future as an independent coastal state, with very, very solid assurances given by the Prime Minister, Lord Frost, and senior members of the of the cabinet over control over who fishes in UK waters and escape from the Common Fisheries Policy – and quota shares that reflected our new status as an independent coastal state," he said.
"And then, from Christmas Eve, really, the government in an eerie echo of Ted Heath's betrayal – as it's seen in the industry – in 1973 where fishing was sacrificed, despite all the assurances and promises. That deal was made in order to secure the broader advantages that would be attached to a trade deal with the EU."
The chief executive said fishermen had been dealt a triple blow by Brexit, the expansion of offshore wind turbines, and what he referred to as a government "in thrall" to the "conservation lobby". He argued that fishing politics would be "toxic" for years to come.
And Mr Deas argued that the weak deal struck with the EU had been interpreted by other countries as a sign that the UK would not stand up for fishermen – an approach they were increasingly taking advantage of.
"The turbulence that has been created has extended to our relations with Norway," he said, describing the country's policy as a "quota grab".
"Seeing that the UK gave into the EU, Norway is playing quite a dangerous game of hardball on Mackerel - at some cost, it has to be said, to their reputation."
Boris Johnson almost completely folded on fishing during Brexit talks, ditching many UK red lines that had been in place since the start of talks in order to avoid a no-deal.
Quota shares were only moderately adjusted to favour UK vessels, and no coastal exclusion zone was established, despite promises to the industry.
The limited nature of the trade agreement between the UK and EU compared to membership of the single market and customs union has also had a devastating impact on some British fish exporters, especially those of shellfish.
It’s ‘reasonable’ for British firms to give up, says deal negotiator - adding ‘They decide it’s just not worth it’
David Frost says he understands why businesses are abandoning trade with Northern Ireland because his Brexit agreement has made it “too much trouble” to carry on.
The negotiator of the deal – which created a border in the Irish Sea – admitted he had not fully foreseen the “chilling effect” of the punishing new red tape for smaller firms facing higher costs.
There are “companies in Great Britain who decide that it’s all too much trouble, reasonably enough – can’t be bothered to engage with the process,” Lord Frost acknowledged.
“They are often SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] and micro-businesses. Dealing with this is a significant call on their time and they decide it’s just not worth it,” he told a parliamentary inquiry.
“That’s why you are seeing some of the trade diversion and supply-chain issues to Northern Ireland that we’re seeing.”
The admission came ahead of Lord Frost unveiling a new “approach” to the Northern Ireland Protocol next week, sparking fresh tensions with the EU.
The government insists the recent three-month truce over the sale of chilled meats and availability of medicines has failed to solve the crisis caused by the Protocol.
Brussels has been accused of continued “intransigence” in the ongoing talks and of a “lack of understanding of the sensitivities in Northern Ireland”.
Questioned by a Lords committee, Lord Frost refused to set out what his new approach might entail – beyond the to make goods “flow as freely as possibly between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
The Brexit minister also:
* Claimed increased cross-border trade between the North and the Republic of Ireland is “a problem” he wanted to discourage.
* Revealed he expected £500m to be spent on trader support services, saying: “That is the cost of the Protocol.”
* Rejected the EU’s insistence that there is no alternative to the Protocol, pointing to a future consent vote at Stormont and asking: “Then what is that vote about?”
* Argued it would be “inconceivable” to press ahead with Protocol-style arrangements after a no vote, warning: “The politics would be quite significant at that point.”
The comments came as the fishing industry accused Tory MPs who had hyped the gains from Brexit of going “very quiet” as those benefits failed to materialise.
The pact was signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in October last year, and lauded as a key example of Britain’s post-Brexit trade and foreign policies. The agreement not only covers the commercial relationship between Britain and the eastern European country but also defence cooperation to support Kiev’s sovereignty.
UK-Ukraine ties were again thrust into the spotlight last month when Russia claimed it had fired warning shots at a British vessel as it passed close to the Crimean peninsula.
Underscoring the political importance of the agreement in October Johnson said the UK was “Ukraine’s most fervent supporter”. He added: “Whether it’s our defence support, stabilisation efforts, humanitarian assistance or close cooperation on political issues, our message is clear: we are utterly committed to upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
However, two officials told The Independent that the pact was already having to be reworked after mistakes were noted in the drafting of trade chapters. Some of the errors are a result of copying and pasting sections that bind the UK to EU rules, the same officials said.
Problems emerged when the trade department sought to create guidance on how the deal should be used by businesses in February and March, after the deal came into force in January. However, the fact that the deal needed fresh negotiation and drafting was not made public by the trade Department for International Trade.
One of the same government officials said that this was a deal that “no one wanted to get wrong”. Particularly as the deal was subject to especially close scrutiny by the European Union, they added. Separately, an EU official told The Independent that they had noted that agreement bound the UK to rules in some areas that they had not expected.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said: “It is standard practice for small sections of agreements to be amended and updated over time to reflect developments, or to add greater clarity that is helpful to businesses.”
Britain's Brexit chief has said the agreement he negotiated with the EU to resolve the Northern Ireland problem contains a serious "contradiction".
Speaking at a parliamentary committee on Monday afternoon Lord Frost said it was a "matter for debate" what key parts of the agreement actually meant.
And he claimed the EU was already "arguably" letting the UK breach parts of the deal.
On Wednesday the minister is set to unveil the government’s proposed changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. Lord Frost will explain the plans in a statement to parliament to be delivered alongside the release of a new policy paper.
"One of the difficulties with the protocol is that it's quite a purposive document, and a lot of its provisions have to be read with other provisions to sort of work out precisely what they mean," Lord Frost told a session of the European Scrutiny Committee on Monday ahead of the announcement.
"For example, the contradiction between the provision saying the union customs code must apply, and the provision that says that you must do your best to reduce checks at Northern Ireland ports: quite what the correct interpretation of those two things is is obviously a matter for debate.
"So I think the issue is that certainly arguably, the way the EU is allowing us to run some of these arrangements is arguably not consistent or only partly consistent with that sort of balance.”
Lord Frost personally led the team that negotiated the agreement with European Commission officials in Brussels.
During the 2019 election Boris Johnson claimed the agreement was "oven ready" also describing it as "a very good deal" and a "reasonable, fair outcome".
But since attempting to implement the deal, the British government now says parts of it must be changed to better suit British businesses in Northern Ireland.
A Brexit row over Gibraltar dramatically escalated on Tuesday as the UK accused Brussels of failing to negotiate in the "real world" and moving to undermine British soverignty .
At a meeting in the EU capital the bloc's commissioners presented plans to remove checks on people and goods at the land border between Spain and Gibraltar.
But the details of the plan caused anger in London as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused the EU of backtracking on previous promises.
The government is concerned that Spain is pushing to extends its influence over the Iberian territory, whose status is a historic bone of contention with Madrid.
The UK is concerned that the EU negotiating mandate, which is yet to be published but has been leaked to the Spanish press, includes plans for Spanish officials to carry out border checks at ports and airports.
The British government wants agents from the EU border agency Frontex to carry out the checks and is concerned that giving the responsibility for administration to Spain would look too much like a concession to Spanish sovereignty of the territory.
"The UK, with Gibraltar, and Spain carefully agreed a pragmatic Framework Agreement, in full consultation with the EU Commission," the Foreign Secretary said in a statement on Tuesday evening.
"The Commission’s proposed mandate, published today, directly conflicts with that Framework. It seeks to undermine the UK’s sovereignty over Gibraltar, and cannot form a basis for negotiations.
"We have consistently showed pragmatism and flexibility in the search for arrangements that work for all sides, and we are disappointed that this has not been reciprocated. We urge the EU to think again."
Gibraltar's government, which wants tight integration with the EU but is equally fiercely in favour of preserving British sovereignty, meanwhile said there was "no possibility" of EU plans for Spanish officials to play a role ever being agreed to.
The territory was not included in the scope of the EU-EU Brexit agreement after pressure from Spain during the first round of talks. Madrid only approved the main Brexit withdrawal agreement on the basis that separate talks could take place over the British enclave.
The issue of the rock is politically sensitive in Spain, with most politicians at least paying lip service to Spain's claim to the island.
Gibraltar had a land border with Spain prior to Brexit but the territory's government has since indicated that it wants to to be part of the Schengen area – in part to make life easier for the thousands of people who commute across the border every day and who currently have to show their documents.
Vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, the EU's Brexit chief since the retirement of Michel Barnier said in a statement: “By putting forward this draft mandate, we are honouring the political commitment we made to Spain to start the negotiations of a separate agreement between the EU and the UK on Gibraltar.
"This is a detailed mandate, which aims to have a positive impact for those living and working on either side of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, while protecting the integrity of the Schengen Area and the Single Market.”
Gibraltar's government also echoed some UK concerns. In a statement released on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the administration said that "in many respects the [EU] mandate strays unhelpfully from the Framework Agreement agreed by the UK and Gibraltar with Spain on 31 December last year".
They added: "As a result, the mandate may, unfortunately, not form the basis for the negotiation of an agreement on a UK treaty with the EU. We will continue to work with the government of the United Kingdom as we explore all possibilities.
"Additionally, we will also continue the work to be ready in the event that there may not be a negotiated outcome with the EU and that Gibraltar will not enjoy a treaty relationship with the EU going forward."
The territory's chief minister Fabian Picardo said: "The draft EU mandate is a matter for them, of course. But I must say that on the basis of the current draft, there is no possibility of this forming the basis for an agreement.
"We will work closely with the United Kingdom, especially Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, to continue to seek the best possible outcomes for Gibraltar."
Brexit secretary warns ‘we cannot go on as we are’, as he publishes blueprint for alternative arrangement
The UK has launched an attempt to substantially rewrite the Northern Ireland 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, with 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 million.
“What is worse, these burdens will worsen, not improve over time, as grace periods expire,” he said.
The prime minister needed a Northern Ireland deal for political reasons ahead of the general election. He now wants to dump it because it’s bad for Britain
Boris Johnson’s proposal to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol he signed in 2019 suggests that he has still not come to terms with the implications of his red lines on Brexit. Mr Johnson’s delusions on the issue run deep. In October 2019, the prime minister repeatedly told MPs that “there will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland” despite his own government’s impact assessment saying precisely the opposite. These hurdles, Mr Johnson knew full well, would not be insignificant, as shoppers in Northern Ireland are now finding out. They are the predictable consequences of customs and regulatory deviations between the UK and the EU. Divergence required a border somewhere; the extra bureaucracy was baked into the protocol.
Mr Johnson needed a deal for political reasons ahead of the 2019 general election. He now wants to dump it because it’s bad for Britain. This has much to do with his government’s own behaviour, which has often been lazy, surly and chaotic. What has kept the show on the road has been grace periods, accepted by the EU, where rules of the deal are not applied. These are coming to an end. Without a breakthrough after months of talks behind closed doors, Mr Johnson has decided to conduct negotiations with Brussels in public.
The result is a proposal for a further “standstill” on existing arrangements, which Lord Frost, the cabinet minister responsible, says would allow for negotiations “without further cliff edges, and to provide a genuine signal of good intent”. This would require generosity from the EU for a refined deal with uncertain prospects. Such goodwill is hardly engendered by the UK government dressing up its demands in Brexiter tropes of meddling European courts and British “honesty” boxes. An ultimatum that London could unilaterally suspend parts of the Brexit deal doesn’t help much. The EU is unlikely to be cowed into submission by a smaller trade partner which faces retaliatory countermeasures. Threats just lower trust.
There is a real problem here. Shoppers in Northern Ireland say shipping online goods has become prohibitively expensive. Supermarkets warn there might be empty shelves in the region by Christmas. Manufacturers worry the “rules of origin” barriers mean tariffs being applied to goods circulating in Great Britain if they are sold on to Northern Ireland. Little wonder then that post-Brexit trading rules have contributed to a feeling for some in the unionist community that they are drifting away from the UK. It’s true that the Democratic Unionist party, which is on its third leader in as many months, has only itself to blame. The DUP labours under the fantasy that the protocol can be wished away. It cannot. However, the violence on streets has its roots in a real anger at what is going on. There is a danger in making people in Northern Ireland feel like pawns in a chess game heading towards a desperate stalemate.
The EU is a rules-based organisation. It wants, quite reasonably, to apply the protocol Mr Johnson negotiated, not the one he wished he’d negotiated. The European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič pointedly said in response to Lord Frost that “respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance”. However, Brussels can find flexible, practical approaches to an imperfect arrangement. So must the UK government. We have been here before. Last summer Britain backed down in a “food blockade” row with Brussels after agreeing to work transparently with the EU. What’s happening across the Irish Sea is a taste of things to come for mainland shoppers: in January most goods will need full customs declarations at the time of import from the EU to Britain. Unless something is done, a rude awakening awaits British voters who, in many ways, are yet to feel the cost of Mr Johnson’s Brexit.
Someone tell Boris Johnson: you can’t bake your ‘oven-ready deal’ and then remove a key ingredient (even if it’s a sausage)
Ask a stupid question and you get a stupid answer. The Northern Ireland protocol is a stupid answer: it imposes a complex bureaucracy on the movement of ordinary goods across the Irish Sea. But it is the only possible response to a problem created by Boris Johnson. The reason it keeps coming around again and again, like a ghoul on a ghost train, is that it requires Johnson and his government to do something that goes against the grain of the whole Brexit project: to acknowledge that choices have costs.
There used to be a gameshow on American radio and TV called Truth or Consequences. It was so popular that a whole city in New Mexico is named after it. It’s where we live now. In each episode, the contestant was asked a deliberately daft question – and when they failed to answer it, they had to perform a zany or embarrassing stunt.
We’ve reached that point in the Brexit show. The question is: why did you divide one part of the UK from the rest, creating a chimerical country in which most of the body is outside the EU’s single market while one foot is still inside? Since it is unanswerable, we get the embarrassing stunt: the demand that the EU should tear up a crucial part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – or else.
Or else what? Britain will unilaterally suspend the operation of the protocol, force-feed the people of Northern Ireland with good English sausage, trigger retaliatory trade sanctions from the EU, destroy Britain’s reputation as a trustworthy partner for any sane country and deeply antagonise the Biden administration in Washington with whom it is hoping to do a landmark trade deal. Good luck with all that.
Speaking on Wednesday, after he published his wildly unrealistic set of demands on the Northern Ireland protocol, which were flatly rejected on Thursday by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, the Brexit minister, David Frost, said negotiations with the EU “have not got to the heart of the problem”. That is about the only truth he uttered.
So what is the heart of the problem? It is not the great Ulster sausage famine. It does not lie in the complexities of phytosanitary standards or the mechanisms of legal interpretation – all of which could be solved with pragmatism and mutual trust. When this problem is dissected, the message written on its heart will be: Boris Johnson is constitutionally incapable of accepting the relationship between cause and effect.
The protocol itself may be complicated, both in its dense technocratic language and in its practical operation. But behind it lies a stark and simple reality. Johnson and the rest of the Brexiters had a choice to make. They could cut the UK off from the EU’s single market and customs union. Or they could prioritise the integrity of the UK itself.
They could not do both – and they still can’t. The dreary soap opera of the protocol is driven by their need to wish away this unpleasant fact. You can’t bake your “oven-ready” Brexit deal and then remove one of the main ingredients from the final dish. The EU has far better things to be doing than making a return trip to the hellish tedium of Brexternity. But for Frost and Johnson, impossible is nothing. Performative belligerence is not bounded by the limits of what can be achieved. Its main function, indeed, is the denial of reality.
Reality, in this case, is the existence within the UK of a very complex, ambiguous, troubled and fragile place: Northern Ireland. There is a good reason why, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, the Vote Leave campaign assiduously avoided the question of what would happen to this awkward polity if the UK left the EU. If you’re offering a three-word slogan as your proposition to voters, you really don’t want to start mapping the future of a border with more crossings than the entire eastern flank of the EU and a history that is every bit as entangled as its geography.
But the repressed returns. Theresa May, for all her haplessness, at least had the honesty to face two truths. One was that there could not be a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. The other was that, in order to avoid it, Britain would have to choose between equally unpalatable alternatives.
Because it is inextricably entwined with the rest of Ireland, and therefore with the EU, Northern Ireland was always going to have to stay very closely aligned to the single market. The British government could deal with this fact in one of two ways. It could put the union first and decide that the same regime of alignment would apply to the whole of the UK. Or it could put a hard Brexit first and accept that separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK was a price worth paying for it.
May decided that the integrity of the union mattered most. Hence the infamous backstop, which shaped Brexit around the need to have the same rules for Northern Ireland as for Britain. Johnson and the ERG took the opposite decision. They traded the integrity of the union for the freedom of Britain to cut its ties to the European trading system.
It is worth recalling how quickly and nonchalantly Johnson made this choice. He did it in 90 minutes, during a meeting with the then taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in the Wirral in October 2019. He grasped it as a lifeline to save himself – without that deal, his prime ministership might have been the shortest on record.
Remember, too, that the ERG made the same choice. Over the wails of betrayal from the DUP, the hardline Brexiters all decided that having the same rules for the whole of the UK was less important than achieving their version of freedom.
This would be fair enough, were it not for the great cloud of unknowing that hangs over everything to do with Brexit. What refuses to be known is the connection between choices and outcomes. The basic proposition that the way you make your bed is the way you lie has never been accepted by the British government.
That government is now effectively blaming remainers for the protocol – if they hadn’t caused so much trouble in parliament, poor Johnson would never have signed up to it. The argument is that the political chaos unleashed by Brexit frees the very people who created it from any responsibility for their own decisions. It is the excuse familiar to magistrates: sorry, guv, but we were awfully drunk at the time.
The choices, in this pitiful pleading, were never really made at all. They have vanished. But the same, alas, cannot be said for the consequences – especially for the people of Northern Ireland. They have to live with effects that, in Johnson’s retelling of the story, were accidental and unintended. The three-word slogan of Brexit has been replaced by a four-letter word: oops.