The European Union has yet again sought to offer a practical, workable solution to the festering dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol but it seems that Liz Truss is determined to continue her predecessor’s unflinching commitment to having nothing to do with anything that might be considered reasonable, intelligent or judicious. After all, those are not words that resonate with the ultra-Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG), otherwise known as the Keepers of the New Prime Minister’s Soul.
And so an EU proposal to almost completely scrap checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, making the border almost invisible, seems likely to fall, once again, on deaf ears.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the EU’s Brexit chief Maroš Šefčovič said the bloc could reduce physical checks to just a few lorries a day.
“If the data are downloaded into the system, when the goods are put on the ferry from Britain… I believe that we can remotely process them while sailing to Northern Ireland,” Šefčovič said. Physical checks would only be made “when there is reasonable suspicion of . . . illegal trade smuggling, illegal drugs or dangerous toys or poisoned food” — typically a “couple of lorries a day”, he said.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, is a key part of the 2020 Brexit withdrawal deal and is meant to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement by preventing the reintroduction of a land border on the island of Ireland. It ensures trade can continue across the Irish land border, but has brought in some new checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The majority of politicians elected to Northern Ireland’s power-sharing devolved assembly support the protocol but it is opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and it has blocked the formation of a new executive in Stormont, saying it wants the protocol changed first. If the deadlock is not broken by October 28, new elections will have to be held.
In his interview, Šefčovič said there was almost no difference between the UK demand for “no checks” and the EU’s offer of “minimum checks, done in an invisible manner”. But such logic means little to a prime minister, government and party for whom tilting at the EU windmill is their whole and sole raison d’être.
Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, said on Twitter: “Senior UK officials tell me EU’s offer doesn’t go far enough – & isn’t particularly new. Aim of the green lane is to eliminate all paperwork on goods going from GB to NI – not just physical checks.”
The idea of having separate red and green lanes for goods lies at the heart of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is working its way through parliament and would allow the UK to unilaterally override parts of the protocol. The EU says doing so would represent a clear breach of international law and it has already opened seven legal actions against London for failing to enforce the protocol and share data. The row has also stymied Britain’s application to stay in the EU’s Horizon scientific research programme, threatening to cut some of Britain’s brightest brains out of key Europe-wide projects.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill proposes that goods from Great Britain which are staying in Northern Ireland would use a green lane, with no checks and minimal paperwork. London also wants any trade disputes to be resolved by independent arbitration and not by the European Court of Justice.
So much for the UK’s wish-list. What the Tory government doesn’t seem to want is a sensible solution: last October, Šefčovič put forward proposals that could have drastically reduced border checks – including an 80% drop in food checks – but these were rejected by the UK.
In many ways, Truss owes her leadership to the ERG and these true-blue Tories cannot stomach any perceived concession to the EU. Even when that concession involves not cutting off your own nose to spite your face.
So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Šefčovič has sweetened the EU offer because Truss’ government, like the one before it, does not really want to resolve the problem because then the whole Brexit project might be exposed for the disaster it really is.
Gerhard Schnyder, professor of international management and political economy at Loughborough University, laid out Truss’ political pickle.
“Given the weak support Truss has in her own party and in the general population and given that a GE (general election) needs to take place by 2024, the EU may consider that waiting for the Truss government to implode and then establish a more productive relationship with the successor government may be a preferable option to dealing with the hard-core Brexiter Truss government,” Schnyder wrote on his blog.
The signs are not good on the Irish side either. Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney recently said that Truss’ approach to the protocol when she was foreign secretary was “very unhelpful”. He told Irish radio she had a “very strident” view on what she believed she needed to do.
The fact that Truss has appointed extreme Brexiteer Chris Heaton-Harris as secretary of state for Northern Ireland and another ERG heavyweight, Steve Baker as minister of state for Northern Ireland, does not exactly scream compromise either.
Claire Hanna, an MP for Northern Ireland’s SDLP party, described Baker’s appointment in particular as “obnoxious” and a “red flag”.
“Liz Truss has an opportunity to make the case for a negotiated resolution with the European Union in the interests of people across these islands. These appointments seem in stark contrast to that objective. Privatising this issue to the DUP and ERG has not only failed in the past, it has brought down previous governments,” Hanna said in a statement
“Liz Truss could have taken the opportunity to build bridges and make allies in the early days of her premiership. Instead she seems to be continuing down the diplomatically ignorant route of her predecessor,” she said.
Truss has said she favours a negotiated settlement but only if the EU meets all the UK’s demands – which suggests she is not really clear on the meaning of the word “negotiated”. Šefčovič says he’s willing to restart talks but only on the basis of the proposals he made last October.
The threat of a trade war looms if the UK does scrap the protocol. With energy prices spiralling, inflation at just over 10% and forecasts that consumer spending will slump further, the fragile economy could do without further avoidable calamities. Hopefully, even the ERG and its new puppet prime minister will be able to grasp that particular piece of logic.