To return to the game of chicken with the EU..
Michael Gove. The argument we’re making to the EU as well is, if you insist on significant new infrastructure and a significant new presence, what you will do is actually make the protocol less acceptable to the majority community in Northern Ireland and therefore you run the risk of the protocol being voted down in a future election,” Michael Gove told the House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier repeated earlier this month that the protocol demands that goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK must be accompanied by an exit declaration.
Last month, the UK government published its plan for implementing the Northern Ireland part of the Brexit deal and said these declarations would not be required.
However, Mr Barnier said the UK pledge not to require the declaration was “incompatible” with legal commitments made in the Brexit deal.
Gove’s argument contains a cheeky hint of blackmail that’s almost certainly bluff. Assuming he’s talking about Unionists as Leavers, they’re unlikely to turn into a majority in a future Assembly when it comes to a vote against remaining in association with the single market. However it’s just possible that a few extra worms would turn if costs went up as a result of the final Protocol arrangements. But most people will be hoping that it will be defused as a political issue and will become at worst a matter of mind numbing bureaucracy kept to a minimum. This however is by no means guaranteed. Gove is making an each way bet by offering compensation.
If there is no deal a unique arrangement for Northern Ireland kicks in, with EU tariffs payable on goods circulating within the region but rebates on all goods that do not cross into the Republic of Ireland. Secondary legislation would be required for the tariff arrangements but this would be put in place before January.
Business leaders described the move as “significant” but expressed concern about the lack of detail.
“What paperwork would be needed? How long would it be for reimbursement as that is a huge cashflow problem?” said Aodhán Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland retail consortium. He also said the EU state-aid rules would make the scheme problematic for big companies. Importers of cars, for example, would face a 10% additional levy on purchases from Nissan in Great Britain without any knowledge of when they could get a rebate. Further, the state aid rules would prevent them from receiving anything more than €200,000 over three years, limiting the number of cars they could buy in from Great Britain
Gove was unable to answer repeated questions by the Labour MP Hilary Benn about whether entry summary declaration forms would be needed for Great British businesses selling into Northern Ireland. These are currently needed for goods brought into the UK from outside the EU. He conceded that new safety and security information would be needed but the operational detail would not be revealed until later in the summer.
Businesses, unions and farmers at an earlier Labour webinar expressed their frustration with the government’s failure to provide greater detail.Victor Chestnutt, the deputy president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, said planning for January was “like walking out into the mist, into the fog”.The committee chairman, Simon Hoare, said the apparent “open skies” thinking was risky. “Six months out, [it] seems to be playing with fire,” said the Conservative MP for North Dorset.
He added that trying to get firm information out of Gove and the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, made him feel like “Alice through the looking glass [trying to divine] what words mean”.
The Spectator’s political correspondent James Forsyth thinks he spots a swift deal which is not dependent on line by line negotiation. The UK would say close to EU rules voluntarily and on the basis of no tariffs. But if the EU were to spot a British breach, it could impose tariffs. Isn’t this where we came in?
The two sides’ decision to commit to an intensified set of negotiations between now and August, some of which will involve face-to-face meetings, suggests both the UK and the EU are serious about seeing if the deadlock can be broken.
The question now is, how can that be done? Well, the biggest obstacle to a deal is the EU’s demands on the level playing field. The UK has repeatedly said that it simply cannot accept them. Michael Gove has already emphasised that the UK would be prepared to accept tariffs rather than agree to what the EU wants in this area. The EU has dismissed this offer, saying there isn’t time to go through the tariff schedule line by line working out what should have what tariff on it.
But the UK offer does open up a potential compromise. A deal could declare that the UK has the sovereign right to move away from the EU’s level playing field should it so choose. But if it did, the EU would have the right to impose tariffs on UK goods. This would allow both sides to claim satisfaction. Johnson could say that the UK has the right to chart its own course without being bound by EU rules, while Brussels can point out that it has the tools to respond to any UK attempt to undercut it.
There is something of a precedent for this in the Northern Ireland protocol. It says that if the UK does not bring in a new EU act that falls within the scope of the protocol then the EU is entitled ‘to take appropriate remedial measures’.
If a deal is going to happen, it’ll have to be something that both sides can accept. That means both the UK and the EU are going to have to be prepared to move off their original negotiating positions and make some compromises. The one outlined above might just be an agreement that both sides could sell to their domestic audiences.
With all that to do, Boris Johnson remains eerily optimistic.
Boris Johnson has told Emmanuel Macron he sees no need for the post-Brexit trade talks to drag on until the Autumn as he attempts to break the deadlock in the negotiations over an EU trade deal.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London