Using Michel Barnier’s old mantra, time is running out on the Protocol negotiations. Even so, recovering from Mick’s references to Irish Times commentator Ronan McCrea, it is not clear to me why the EU should “play ball” at this point. Given that he fears the damage caused in a long arbitration period under the Withdrawal Agreement.
..DDuring the long period during which all these procedures were worked out, the EU would face a hole in the border of the EU single market along the Irish border. This would put strong pressure on Dublin to impose border controls with the North in order to avoid question marks about full Irish membership of the single market. There are, therefore, good reasons for the EU for a much more radical response.
But there are further steps to take before reaching such a point. In the Lords today, Lord Frost gave one of his sit reps in tones of reasonableness, in contrast to your push me pull, threats from the EU and Ireland of a trade war, but let’s hope not. Frost is right that the threat of a trade war is disproportionate. You can claim to have obtained concessions from the EU; but he is risking his arm to negotiate in such a provocative and condescending way
Our European friends should keep calm and keep proportions. They might remind themselves that no government and no country have a greater interest in stability and security in Northern Ireland and this government’s Belfast / Good Friday deal.. .
… I will certainly not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that more cannot be done. We are certainly not at that point yet. If, however, we reach that point in due course, Article 16 safeguards will be our only option.
… We got a little closer; there has been some movement, and that’s good. We are simply not moving together fast enough, and the gap is still extremely wide. However, there have been some incremental advances. Our hope was that this could have been quicker and more concrete, but we are trying.
Here are the details on which Frost is calling for more movement from the EU.
For example, they do not eliminate a single customs declaration for any goods moving to Northern Ireland. The famous 50% figure is actually a 50% reduction in the number of fields in the customs declaration, with most of the significant ones still left – it’s not a 50% elimination of the process. Regarding medicines, we do not yet have a situation addressing the reality that the regulator in Northern Ireland is not the MHRA but the EMA, so there is clearly a risk of divergence and not being able to supply medicines to the whole country – and we have to take care of that. So they make progress, but they don’t carry us all the way.
There is at least one more round where the EU could offer further mitigations that the UK could finally accept, leaving the DUP with nowhere else to go. This could happen as early as Friday when Frost meets next EU Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic, but probably not. The times for Armageddon are longer: one month of talks if Article 16 is invoked; Another year is required to terminate the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK may then be able to enforce EU law against the EU.
Robert Shrimsley in the FT offers this shrewd assessment of what Boris Johnson is doing.
Johnson’s swift retreat (in the Owen Paterson affair) reminds his troops that, despite all of Churchill’s rhetoric, he is often the first to head for the hills when he feels the fight is no longer worth it. This is not always a weakness. Johnson does not feel obligated to defend a losing position.
There is a lot in the current line (beyond the protocol) that suits his style. For most of the year, he brandished the threat of triggering Article 16 of the protocol, which allows one party to suspend part of the deal if it causes severe “social or economic damage.” What should be an outlet for specific problems is seen by Johnson as a lever to try to rewrite the deal. This moment is approaching and has prompted bellicose threats of retaliation from the EU, although Frost said the UK “is not here yet”. But if and when Johnson starts the process, he can start small and scale up. Mechanisms allow for delays before any EU response, meaning he can back down if the price, be it targeted retaliatory tariffs or controls. more destructive in Calais, it seems too high. The nuclear option launched by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney – to end the UK / EU trade deal – also requires a year’s notice, giving Johnson time, albeit at the cost of economic uncertainty.
the second lesson is that Johnson will retire when he is defeated. The story of his Brexit negotiations is to talk hard and then give in. The fight over the protocol highlights how completely he gave in when he signed it in 2019. A year later he accepted a trade deal that brought him few benefits. For all his combative talk of leaving without a deal, Johnson never did. Since its core demands go beyond what the EU is willing to concede, it is a reasonable bet that the same will happen again.
His allies may cheer up a prime minister fighting Brussels, but they and the media could quickly transform in the face of economic damage and empty shelves. This means that his cheerleaders have to give him room to retire when he’s ready.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; BBC NI Political Editor; Current affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Political and Parliamentary Program Editor, BBC Westminster; former London editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London