The Brief, powered by GSMA – The protocol price

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Accepting the Northern Ireland Protocol was the price that the UK’s Conservative MPs had to pay for Brexit. Even so, they did so very reluctantly, at the fourth time of asking, and only after replacing Theresa May with Boris Johnson as prime minister.

Lest we forget, avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – to ensure that Brexit did not damage the peace process in Ulster – was the most controversial element of the Withdrawal Agreement and the EU-UK trade deal agreed in late December.

With one ill-judged move, the European Commission has reopened the discussion on it.

By triggering Article 16 of the protocol, in a bid to avoid COVID-19 vaccines intended for the EU market finding a backdoor into the UK via Northern Ireland, the Commission effectively abandoned its position of the last four years; namely that the Protocol was needed to safeguard peace in Northern Ireland.

Even though the Commission was quick to backtrack, it gave the impression that it was prepared to use the Protocol to salvage its vaccination programme.

The Commission’s blunder has, in turn, emboldened Boris Johnson and his Conservative party to believe that they can get a refund and rewrite or scrap the Protocol.

Johnson himself told UK lawmakers last week that “we will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the Protocol, to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

At the time of writing, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was expected to pile on the pressure at a meeting with Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič in London on Tuesday.

Gove, for the moment, appears to be playing good cop, saying on Monday that the Protocol can be salvaged and should not be “ditched”. But, he warned, “it is not working now”.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist Party, which has opposed the Protocol that separates Northern Ireland from Britain, in trading terms, is again vocally campaigning for it to be scrapped. That, in turn, re-ignites tensions with the DUP’s coalition partner, Sinn Fein, and the moderate nationalist Social Democrat and Labour party.

The Irish government has said the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol is not going to be scrapped. So, too, does the Commission, which has also indicated that it will not agree to the UK’s request to extend by 18 months the transition periods for a range of goods so that they are not subject to EU customs controls.

This is dangerous territory on several levels.

The episode shows that the Commission has been guilty of the same bad faith it accused London of showing last autumn when its Internal Market bill threatened to override the Protocol. It also threatens already fragile trade and political relations between London and Brussels and in Northern Ireland.

The Commission would do well to clean up a mess that it, alone, created.

A message from GSMA: Sovereignty, Resilience and Trust: Strengthening Europe’s Digital Economy after COVID-19. The pandemic has made it crystal clear that a robust and resilient telecoms sector is essential to Europe’s economic and societal wellbeing. The GSMA, on behalf of its European members, presents the mobile industry’s vision for 2021 and beyond in its latest report.

The Roundup

Digital innovations should be used as a tool for environmental protection and climate action, but we must act now, Germany’s minister for the environment, Svenja Schulze, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) want to be seen as the party of the future, a core message of the resolution following last weekend’s party retreat. But the SPD’s proverbial red thread – on social issues – is missing

As the EU works on its Arctic policy update, youth representatives from the European Arctic have called on policymakers to ensure that Arctic youth and Indigenous peoples are included in the actions that will directly affect their futures.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a video call he hopes for a summit with EU leaders in the first half of 2021 to ease tensions.

Renewables will not be enough for Europe to meet its 2050 climate neutrality goal, says a coalition of centrist and conservative MEPs. Instead, the EU will need a nuclear renaissance to achieve it, they argue, referring to a fresh study on the EU’s climate policy.

Look out for…

  • European Parliament debate with the European Commission on the EU’s vaccine strategy
  • European Commission VP Frans Timmermans receives Prime Minister of Ukraine

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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