- Tuesday, 19 October 2021 19:06
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic: The proposals began life in his engagements with Northern Irish stakeholders on a visit there in September. Photograph: Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
The nod from the member states came late. Hours before the release of the proposals to adjust the Northern Ireland protocol, it was still unclear whether all capitals would give their approval.
The move to eliminate 80 per cent of checks on goods from Britain destined for Northern Irish supermarket shelves, to slash customs formalities, and exceptionally to allow unfrozen meat products into the single market due to reasons of national sensitivity, arguably opens up a gap in protecting European Union agriculture and, officials admit, creates an opportunity for cross-border smuggling.
To offer it, the EU’s Brexit point man Maros Sefcovic had to overcome the reservations of member states including France, long wary of the risk of plant and animal diseases entering the single market via Britain and threatening its agriculture industry, and already in a stand-off with London over fishing licences that makes it reluctant to be seen to reward British brinkmanship with concessions.
Sefcovic also had to overcome resistance within the European Commission, among officials who work on food, animal and plant safety and on fair competition under the French internal market commissioner Thierry Breton.
“The lawyers have been at it for months,” a diplomat recalled, describing “blood on the floor” in the confrontations over the matter. “The commission is pushing at the very edge of what is accepted by member states.”
The government of prime minister Boris Johnson has trashed its relationships on the continent. Even Irish officials, who once enjoyed special insight into Whitehall due to long personal and cultural links, are estranged from the true motivations of London.
A throwaway line explaining how Britain could agree arrangements for Northern Ireland only to ditch them later in former Downing Street svengali Dominic Cummings’s latest Twitter screed crystalised the impression London has given its allies: “good faith blah . . . cheating foreigners is a core part of the job”.
To win the support of member states, the EU’s package was presented not as a cave-in to this deeply unpopular regime, but as an adaptation to a very different group, one seen as much more sympathetic and pragmatic: the people of Northern Ireland themselves.
The four papers began life in Sefcovic’s engagements with Northern Irish stakeholders, particularly the industry collective the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, and in a trip to Northern Ireland in September to listen face-to-face.
What the commission heard was appeals for practical adjustments to ease the implementation on the ground, for stability and predictability. To work within the protocol – a hard-fought solution to the conundrum posed by a Brexit that a majority in Northern Ireland did not ask for – not to jettison it.
Industry figures have indicated that they recognise in the EU proposals a response to their demands, and that indeed the measures go further than what they could have hoped for.
Unfortunately for them however, these fixes are not the sole gift of the EU to give. They require London: British authorities must implement aspects of the protocol that were agreed but never enacted, such as sharing real-time customs data, labelling NI-only goods with stickers, and building permanent border infrastructure, as part of the package.
Equally, proposals by the EU to formalise direct links with Northern Irish authorities and stakeholders and involve them in oversight of the package through parliamentary and committee structures require the British government to acquiesce.
In a speech on the eve of the EU’s announcement, Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost repeated a demand he knows that Brussels cannot concede: that the role of the European Court of Justice be removed in overseeing the EU regulations that apply in the North.
This was seen in Brussels as a piece of political theatre, arranged last minute in a bid to blunt the impact of the EU’s proposals.
British sources insist that the ECJ goes to the heart of the problems with the protocol. Yet it did not feature as a problem when the text was negotiated and agreed, and only emerged as a demand this July, long after the deal came into force.
The adoption of the principle of opposition to the ECJ by a handful of the unionist politicians closest to the Brexiteer camp – described as “latter-day converts” to the issue by one person close to the talks – is viewed as a risky strategy.
“History shows Boris Johnson can change his mind very quickly, and defend his new position as if he had never believed anything else,” one official mused.
“When will the DUP realise they shouldn’t tie themselves to Brexiteers? How will they explain to voters that they will jettison all this because of the ECJ?”