The UK government underestimated the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Brexit minister David Frost conceded on Monday (17 May), as he warned UK lawmakers that talks with EU officials had failed to break an impasse on the implementation of border checks.
Speaking at a hearing with the House of Commons European Scrutiny committee, Frost admitted that the imposition of checks on goods travelling from Britain to the province had had “a bigger chilling effect than we thought on GB businesses wanting to move goods into Northern Ireland.”
“This is one of the problems that is underlying some of the unrest and political developments we are seeing in Northern Ireland,” he added.
The Northern Ireland Protocol keeps the province in the EU single market for goods, establishing a trade border with Great Britain, which has prompted an angry reaction from the province’s unionist and loyalist community which want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK.
A week of sustained rioting by the pro–British community in April left more than 50 police officers injured, the worst period of violence since the Good Friday peace agreement was signed in 1998.
”The fundamental problem for us is if the way the protocol is operating is undermining the Good Friday Agreement rather than supporting it then we obviously have a problem,” Frost said.
“That wasn’t what the protocol was meant to do and if it is doing it then it’s not working right,” he added.
The Protocol was negotiated and agreed by Frost as the UK’s chief negotiator in the Brexit talks. However, it was controversial throughout the talks on the Withdrawal Agreement that took the UK out of the EU in January 2020 and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which came into force at the start of this year.
In February, Boris Johnson’s government called for the Protocol to be reopened, and businesses have complained about the onerous new bureaucratic requirements on them.
In March, the UK government unilaterally extended the grace period for border checks on agri-food to October, instead of implementing them as agreed. That prompted the European Commission to take legal action against the UK for breaching the terms of its Withdrawal Agreement from the EU.
Talks between EU and UK officials on how to ease the burden in implementing the Protocol have been taking place since then but Frost told MPs that talks had not been “hugely productive” and warned that the government would “have to see how far we can take it”.
The UK minister refused to rule out the prospect of London acting unilaterally to suspend the Protocol.
Frost told MPs that the UK had no plans to align with EU agri-food standards, contending that this would make it harder for the UK to strike trade deals with other countries.
Instead, the UK wants to reach a compromise where the EU could recognise UK rules as being equivalent.
Earlier on Monday, an EU spokesperson told reporters that the discussions with the UK were “constructive” and were “making progress”.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]