Anyone who thought that the Brexit deal would be the final agreement of years of arm wrestling between the United Kingdom and the European Union will be disappointed. Just over a year and a half after the UK’s departure from the EU, the parties are once again preparing for difficult negotiations. We know the point of contention from 2019: how to deal with Northern Ireland.
In order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, Brussels and London agreed in 2019 that Northern Ireland would remain part of the European internal market. This meant that there would be checks on goods transported between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – i.e. within the UK. But those British controls are still not taking place, according to the UK it is to protect trade in Northern Ireland, and Brussels barely gets the access necessary to control customs. Reason for both sides to reopen the discussion about the so-called Northern Ireland protocol.
The tug-of-war got serious this week. On Tuesday, British Brexit minister David Frost presented his alternative to the protocol, which he believes should be completely rewritten. London wants including ending mandatory border controls and increasing confidence in businesses that they are following the rules. The British also no longer want the European Court of Justice to be the arbiter in disputes about border rules.
European Court of Justice
A day after Frost’s presentation, Brussels offered a helping hand. Without going into the substance of the proposal from the UK, responsible European Commissioner Maros Sefcovic presented a number of proposals on Wednesday evening to simplify goods traffic to Northern Ireland. The core: fewer physical and time-consuming checks of, for example, sausage and medicines, in exchange for better agreements about supervision. The number of necessary checks could be reduced by 80 percent as a result of the adjustments, and the customs paperwork by half.
The EU is making a hefty concession with this. On one point, however, Brussels does not admit anything: the involvement of the European Court of Justice. “If you take out the Court, you take Northern Ireland out of the internal market,” emphasizes an EU official. London is doing the right thing as if this is a hard demand and emphasizes that ‘Northern Ireland is not an EU territory’.
Also read: Unionists in Belfast feel cheated
While Frost has said he will consider all proposals from Brussels “seriously, fully and positively,” there is unlikely to be a quick resolution to the dispute. Sefcovic will travel to London with negotiators on Thursday, but the prospects on the EU side are gloomy. The British may soon allow the situation to escalate further by unilaterally canceling the Northern Ireland protocol by invoking the so-called Article 16. In that scenario, the call within the EU for tougher measures will grow considerably. France, in particular, is already pushing for a harder line. Measures such as levies, quotas and blockades will then be put on the table, increasing the risk of a trade war.
Brussels olive branch
Although the reaction to the Brussels olive branch is still cool in London and Northern Ireland, the EU member state Ireland is positive. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin stated on Wednesday that the EU is “in solution mode” and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney spoke thanks to the Union, which is said to have ‘listened to Northern Ireland’. Ireland therefore has a strong interest in a solution to the conflict, as there are fears that a hard border on the island of Ireland could revive the never-ending tensions between the two countries.
Both Martin and Coveney spoke this week expresses the hope that the government in London will take further steps to resolve the dispute. Martin: „It takes two to tango.”
Also read this interview from 2018 with Minister Coveney: ‘Brexit brings tension to Northern Ireland’