Irish backstop –
This week’s sharp exchanges between London and Dublin over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland were a reminder that the issue that dominated politics for three years before coronavirus remains urgent and unresolved.
The immediate dispute is about the lack of British preparations to implement the Northern Ireland protocol and the European Commission’s request to open an office in Belfast. But it reflects the mutual suspicion and pessimism surrounding the wider negotiations about Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
Officials from both sides met in a video conference on Thursday to discuss the workings of the protocol, under which Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU rules on customs and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards after the end of the post-Brexit transition period on December 31st.
Britain has made clear it wanted to lighten the burden of customs declarations and procedures in a trade deal with the EU
Before the meeting, which included officials from Ireland and a number of other member states, the European Commission circulated a seven-page document updating the 27 member states on its concerns.
“The commission expects the United Kingdom to provide the requested details, and detailed timelines, on the implementation measures it intends to take as a matter of urgency. The commission also expects the United Kingdom to enter into technical implementation discussions with the relevant commission services immediately,” it said, adding that work on IT systems and customs databases need to be ready by June 1st.
The meeting was described by both sides as constructive but when the commission published its note to member states later on Thursday evening, British sources complained that the document did not include a single mention of the Belfast Agreement or the peace process. London described the EU’s request to open an office in Belfast as a new demand that is not required under the protocol.
British negotiators have told their European counterparts that every step in implementing the protocol must have cross-community support in the North, although they promise that they will fulfil their legal obligations. The Europeans suspect that the British are dragging their feet on the protocol, hoping to play it into the main negotiations in an attempt to secure a better trade deal.
During last month’s negotiating round on the future relationship, Britain made clear it wanted to lighten the burden of customs declarations and procedures in a trade deal with the EU. A light-touch customs regime between Great Britain and Northern Ireland could serve as a model that would suit Britain’s purposes but the presence of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece at Thursday’s meeting on the protocol suggests that they are alert to the risks.
Neither side now expects the transition period to be extended beyond December. Britain has said it will not request an extension before the July deadline and would not accept one if it was offered – and it will not be. But neither side expects much progress in the next two rounds of negotiations starting on May 11th and June 1st.
Some opposition politicians in Britain have suggested that coronavirus makes a delay essential, not least because the economic consequences of the pandemic are not yet clear. But for Boris Johnson’s government, that uncertainty adds to the urgency of severing ties with the EU.
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The EU insists that it cannot allow a country as big and as close to Europe as Britain to certify products for circulation in the single market in the way Canada or Japan can
“At the end of this year, the EU will have a new financial settlement and they will no doubt want to take all kinds of measures, just like we will, to deal with the consequences of this crisis and the aftermath. And, you know, this is such a huge crisis that we don’t know what they’re going to be but they’re going to be pretty significant. And when they do, they will be designing those laws for the 27, not 28,” a source close to the negotiations said.
“We will have no say in them. We don’t know what they’re going to be. We don’t know how much they’re going to cost. We don’t know whether they’ll see our conditions. And it does not seem sensible for us to continue to be bound into such an unpredictable situation. So it’s a version of the original case for Brexit, which is that we set our own laws for our own conditions.”
Downing Street celebrates last October’s deal to replace the Northern Ireland backstop with a front-stop – viewed universally in Europe as a comprehensive capitulation by Johnson – as a famous victory for British diplomacy. British negotiators believe a Canada-style free trade agreement is within reach if the EU abandons the demand for level playing field conditions on environmental and labour standards, state aid and competition.
“We’re not going to subordinate our laws to theirs in any areas. We’re not going to accept the European Court’s involvement in settling disputes, treaties,” the source said.
The EU insists that it cannot allow a country as big and as close to Europe as Britain to certify products for circulation in the single market in the way a country like Canada or Japan can. Germany assumes the EU’s six-month, rotating presidency on June 1st and Angela Merkel has made clear privately to colleagues that she remains determined that Brexit cannot be cost-free for Britain.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed divisions within the EU over fundamental issues but British negotiators would be unwise to draw too much comfort from Europe’s internal rancour. The economic fallout is likely to make protecting the single market more important than ever to EU member-states, encouraging them to maintain a strong line in the negotiations.
The smart money in London and Brussels remains on a deal being agreed this year, although both sides expect it to come later rather than sooner. But the deal is likely to be a bare-bones agreement that will put British trade with the EU on a significantly less favourable basis than today.
Brinkmanship on the Northern Ireland protocol is undermining confidence in the good faith Britain brings to the negotiations and putting even a rudimentary agreement at risk.
Denis Staunton is London Editor
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