The UK is moving closer to suspending the Irish protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, in its Brexit agreement, Brexit minister David Frost warned on Monday (4 October).
“We cannot wait for ever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will need to act, using the Article 16 safeguard mechanism, to address the impact the protocol is having on Northern Ireland,” Frost said in a speech to the Conservative party conference.
Elsewhere in his address to party delegates, Frost declared that the “long bad dream of EU membership” was over. Speaking to EURACTIV, he said he wants to renegotiate the terms of the protocol with the European Commission.
“We are seeking to negotiate significant changes to the protocol,” the UK’s Brexit minister told EURACTIV in an interview, adding that “it is not working, it is not preserving the balance of the Good Friday Agreement, and is causing disruption in everyday lives. It is not respecting Northern Ireland’s unique place within the UK”.
Invoking Article 16 would effectively suspend the application of the protocol, and the UK minister has said that the conditions for triggering it have already been met, pointing to the unionist community’s opposition to the protocol, and evidence of trade being diverted away from Northern Ireland.
Businesses associations in the province have reported major disruption to trade flows, with one in five firms reporting that their UK supplier won’t trade with them anymore.
“There are problems from implementing the protocol. We are seeing trade diversion. We think this meets the test of Article 16,” Frost said.
“We are not talking about sweeping away the protocol, but about changes to make the protocol work better,” Frost told EURACTIV, adding that these would “build on the foundations and core concepts of the protocol.”
“We have no interest in having a fractious or difficult relationship with the EU and its member states.
The protocol has introduced customs checks for goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland. UK officials say that they have been surprised by the scale of the difficulties faced by businesses and by what they perceive as the EU’s strict implementation of the text.
While trust between London and Brussels remains very low, with the EU having opened infringement proceedings against the Johnson government, UK officials say that the EU has also contributed to the mistrust, citing the European Commission’s short-lived attempts in spring to prevent COVID vaccines travelling from Ireland to the UK.
“The finger is very often pointed at us. But there are things that the EU has done has left us bruised and with mistrust,” said one official.
However, there is growing evidence that both the unionist and business communities are highly critical of the UK government’s handling of the protocol.
“We’ve been shafted by the UK government and I understand Brussels’ attitude,” a senior unionist politician told EURACTIV.
Maros Sefcovic, the Vice President of the European Commission responsible for implementing the post-Brexit trade deal, is expected to table proposals aimed at easing implementation.
However, the EU executive has said that it will not renegotiate the protocol, and UK officials have low expectations. One UK official said that the EU “will only offer flexibilities and technicalities”.
“Most Northern Irish businesses want protocol pragmatism, and want the protocol to work, though they do want adjustments,” Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, told EURACTIV.
However, Kelly added that one in five Northern Irish businesses want the protocol to be scrapped and that there is diminishing confidence that the protocol can be made to work.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]