The European Union is considering its response to the UK in its legal action over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The protocol is an agreement that effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for the movement of goods after Brexit, thus avoiding a hard border with the rest of Ireland. The EU is accusing the UK of failing to properly implement the protocol. Despite the suspension of normal politics while the UK mourns the Queen’s passing, their government has responded ahead of the EU’s Thursday deadline. The EU took action following the UK’s unilateral action by introducing a bill to alter the protocol by the then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
The Grace Period
The British government argues for the retention of “grace periods” delaying full customs checks. Daniel Ferrie the European Commission spokesman said: “I can confirm we have received a reply from the UK. We will now analyse the reply before deciding on the next steps.” The Commission could refer the case to the European Court of Justice but for now has been making overtures about restarting stalled negotiations on how to accommodate both parties in the reform of the post-Brexit treaty. The new Liz Truss government’s thinking is still unknown, though Liz Truss has been centrally embroiled in this row from her time as Foreign Secretary. It was she who championed a bill that would allow Britain to override parts of the protocol. The EU sees this as a blatant breach of an agreed treaty. EU diplomats believe Liz Truss’s approach was focused on satisfying the right wing of the Tory party with a leadership contest looming. Now with Liz Truss as prime minister, Brussels is wondering what her position will be regarding the protocol from her new position. With talks of a face to face meeting between the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen and Liz Truss at next week’s UN General Assembly in New York maybe that question will be clarified.
The Northern Ireland protocol was part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, designed to avoid a hard border between the two parts of Ireland. This was agreed between the UK and the EU in December 2019. Special trading arrangements were agreed for Northern Ireland because of its land border with the Republic of Ireland which is in the EU. The UK and the EU both agreed that an arrangement was necessary to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that a hard border would jeopardise.
A Border between Britain and Northern Ireland
The EU’s strict food regulations requires border checks when certain goods – such as milk and eggs – arrive into the EU (including Northern Ireland – as per the protocol) from Britain now a non-EU country. From 2021, with the NI protocol in place, checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland effectively created a hard border between Britain and Northern Ireland and a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Tories didn’t like this one bit and Unionist politicians went gaga condemning what they saw as the imposition of a trade border in the Irish Sea effectively separating them from Britain.
The Northern Ireland executive has been suspended since February 2022, and the DUP have refused to return to the Stormont power sharing executive with nationalists until the protocol is scrapped or very significantly reformed. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is an attempt to allow the UK government to override the arrangements for Northern Ireland it had signed up to with the EU. This is one can of worms that will require the Wisdom of Solomon to untangle.